But does big necessarily mean beautiful? That’s the question behind Ethical Corporation’s recent Country Briefing. The answer all depends, author Stephen Gardner concludes, on who’s doing the beholding.
If it’s a box-ticker, then ‘yes’. More than six in ten (63%) of major Dutch companies produce an annual sustainability report – a figure far in advance of European counterparts such as Germany, Italy and Spain.
Internationalists are also likely to answer positively. From the days of the Dutch East India company, the Netherlands’ sights have been firmly set overseas. It’s a perspective to which its modern multinationals have remained true. As with its government, private companies rank international development highly. And not just in cash terms. Programmes such as the Sustainable Trade Initiative are making strides in spreading efficient, ethical standards away from home. Their supply chain record is no less impressive. The vigilance of Dutch campaign groups and investors has a lot to do with that.
For others, big means bad. Not all Dutch companies are whiter than white. Global bank ING, for instance, has recently come under scrutiny for its holdings in controversial companies”, such as cluster bomb and landmine component makers.
But for most, big simply means cumbersome. Dutch companies have a reputation for following, not leading. Most are a century-plus old. That slows the dynamo somewhat. As Gardner puts it: “Though Dutch companies are among the best, they are generally not the very best, or they are the best only in certain areas.” Shell stands as a case in point. It recently slipped from the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, the first time since the ranking’s inception over a decade ago. The reason has yet to be published. Problems in the Niger Delta could be to blame. But more likely, the company just stood still and let others go past it.
Yet the Netherlands is not without its ethical innovators. It’s just a case of where to look. The real action is happening at the other end of the telescope, among the moths not the behemoths. The Dutch know these small, nimble players as “double goal” firms. Triodos Bank, the ethical finance pioneer, is perhaps best known. Its fames for using its $3 billion balance sheet to finance those “working to make the world a better place.” Others - like union-founded bank ASN, local brewer Gulpener and pro-organic fashion label G-Star Raw - are less well known. (The Briefing includes a case study of carpet manufacturer Desso’s cradle-to-cradle production approach should anyone need convincing).
Of course, there’s always a danger that the Netherlands’ ethical minnows might sink rather than swim. In an age of austerity, government incentives are few and far between. That said, the Dutch government does now apply sustainable purchasing criteria to all public contracts.
But government support is confined mostly to the realm of the rhetorical. “Inspiring, innovating and integrating” runs the current mantra from the Staten-Generaal (the Dutch Parliament). If you’re on the look-out for examples, it’d be as well to think small as it would big.