“It is crucial that we begin transitioning into a circular economy tomorrow”

Nyenrode case studies expose European sustainability problems

February 18 2021

“With regards to the use of chemicals, many rules and regulations exist worldwide. Yet the pollution is enormous.” That is one of the outcomes of the sustainability research conducted over the past four years by Nyenrode Business University. Its objective: to provide insight into the contribution of European policies to sustainable development. And the results don’t lie. Tineke Lambooy, Professor of Corporate Law at Nyenrode Business University, led this project. “It is crucial that we begin transitioning into a circular economy tomorrow.”

The sustainability research conducted by Nyenrode from 2016 to 2020, is part of an international collaboration between multiple universities. Also known as SMART (Sustainable Market Actors for Responsible Trade), the research team successfully submitted a proposal for the European Horizon 2020 research program for science and innovation. With this research, they mapped the coherence issues between the European legislation and the advancement of sustainable development.[1] “The best way to approach this, is by diving deep into international production chains. We did so by conducting multiple case studies”, explains Lambooy. “The University of Oslo, for example, followed the product life cycles of two smart phones, and we did the same analysis for a pair of jeans and a white T-shirt.”[2]

The impact of chemicals and gender inequality

Lambooy’s international research team counted around fifteen researchers, including Martine Bosman, PhD student at Nyenrode.[3] Other researchers participated from Bangladesh, Turkey, India and Indonesia. “First we mapped the so-called ‘sustainability hotspots’[4]. Those are the factors that cause problems in the textile sector in relation to sustainable development. This led to hundreds of issues; child labor, pesticides, you name it”, adds Bosman. Together with various businesses in the international chain, the team researched these hotspots by conducting literature studies, interviews and by organizing expert and stakeholder meetings.  

Next, the team picked two stand-alone and serious hotspots. Both have an enormous impact on other sustainability aspects: hazardous chemicals and gender inequality. “Chemicals are unhealthy for employees, water streams and the soil. The use of chemicals occurs in almost every phase of the supply chain, which is exactly why this hotspot has this huge impact on different planetary boundaries,”[5] says Lambooy. “And also the gender inequality that exists in the production phase is a very serious matter, the circumstances for women can be truly degrading.”[6]

The team then identified the legislation in relation to these two hotspots. With regards to chemicals, this legislation proved to be very limited, as did its enforcement. “There are many places in the world where you don’t even need a permit for using pesticides”, explains Lambooy. “And for the collection of textile waste, hardly any arrangements have been made in the Netherlands. Producers and sellers do not have to take back ‘their’ clothing and process it as waste, as is the case in other industry branches. Deposit does not yet exist in this branch.” However, different initiatives coming from the industry itself were discovered. “There is the ‘Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals’ program for example, and in the Netherlands we have the ‘Textielconvenant’ (textile sector agreement).[7] The norms in such programs are set much higher than the current legislation in the various countries of which we examined the legislation on chemicals and gender equality. We wonder whether those initiatives shouldn’t be the general norm to begin with. It would be technically possible and there is support from within the sector.”

Achieving above the norm

The SMART-team also researched how ‘best practice’ manufacturers in these specific textile chains deal with the two hotspots. “We spoke with many stakeholders: financers, NGOs, unions and producers in India, Turkey, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Europe, varying from cotton farmers to waste processors”, adds Lambooy. This showed that the sustainability standards included in self-regulation are high. “To tackle the hotspots, the ‘best practice’ manufacturer seeks for affiliation with quality marks and sector covenants, which mostly rise above the minimal norm of legislation.”    

In all the countries included in this research, extensive legislation on gender equality actually does exist. However, the problem is the (non-)compliance. Bosman: “Treaties state that men and women must be treated and paid equally and must be given the same opportunities. But that is not how it goes. Manufactories in Bangladesh often have insufficient and unsanitary women’s bath rooms, even though the majority of the employees there is female.” That is exactly why one of the recommendations of the team is the following: Train your people. “As soon as you, as a clothing brand, start training your people on the work floor, you give them a different view on women’s rights and you change the company culture”, explains Bosman. “It is not about rules and regulations, but about changing behavior.”

In view of chemicals, the research team offered different recommendations for new legislation. Lambooy: “A new rule could be for all clothing manufacturers and brands to take back their clothing and to recycle everything properly. It is truly essential that we begin transitioning into a circular economy. We also advise international chain partners to be transparent towards each other about the way they make their products. And we recommend companies to make use of already existing sustainability labels based on self-regulatory programs (or multi-stakeholder initiatives), for example in the field of organically grown cotton.”

Working together on sustainability

The results of the research have been presented to the Commission of the European Union in various reports.[8] In addition, at least fifteen academic articles have been published, including several in a special edition of the Yuridika[9] journal and a study about ‘company leadership and sustainability’.[10] Bosman's thesis will follow shortly.

The research also laid the foundation for Nyenrode’s Full-time MBA course ‘Circular Economy and Sustainable Development’.[11] “During this course we take our students with us on the journey we made in finding the solutions for hotspots,” says Lambooy, “and we let them conduct their own research on how they can contribute to sustainability. Their education programs cover a variety of products and sectors, and sustainability hotspots.”

Through this research it has become crystal clear that working together is key. Bosman: “In countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh, people are putting their heart and soul into a circular economy. That personal ambition that people drives seems to be the real game changer. It is them who showed us: Let’s do this together. Because by working together we can make things better.”

[3] LinkedIn profiel Martine Bosman.Nyenrode also took part in the research:  Sam Solaimani, Bart Jansen, Aikaterini Argyrou, Rosalien Van ’t Foort-Diepeveen, James Greisen, Sander van ’t Foort, Michiel Brandt and Herman Mulder. Other team members.
Martine Bosman, Tineke Lambooy
Martine Bosman, Tineke Lambooy

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