The Court of Public Perception

Posted by on Oct 4, 2018 in Blog | 0 comments

Environmental management issues go beyond a cut-and-dried reading and application of the regulations. Often there is more than just “scientific facts” and a strict reading of the regulations.  Sometimes perceptions and sentiment trump facts, and sometimes the regulations have not caught up with the science.

This extra-regulatory approach to environmental management is often lumped under what is referred to as a social licence.

Defining Social Licence

The idea of a social licence is imprecise at best.  It’s not based on hard science or regulations; rather, it is perceptions and sentiment.  These stakeholder perceptions are influenced by several outside factors.  Below is a textbook definition:

“The social licence…is based not on compliance with legal requirements (although breach of these requirements may jeopardise the social licence), but rather upon the degree to which a corporation and its activities are accepted by local communities, the wider society, and various constituent groups (Social Licence and Environmental Protection: why businesses go beyond compliance:  London School of Economics and Political Science).

Here are a couple of examples of how non-regulatory issues affected decisions made by companies.

Agricultural Practices Altered by Social Licence

In the United States, dairy farmers used an artificial hormone to increase milk production.  Recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rBST, was used to increase milk production by 10 – 25%.

However, some environmental and consumer groups believed this was not safe and were opposed to this practice.  They launched campaigns against the use of rBST.

Stakeholders Forced Change

Certain stakeholder kickback (environmental groups and consumer groups) was very organized.  The bottom line was these groups believed that the use of rBST was unsafe.  The response from the dairy industry included scientific facts that demonstrated that this wasn’t the case.  The problem was, these stakeholders were not interested in facts, these sentiment-influenced groups opposed rBST, and they didn’t want milk produced using rBST.

Eventually, large grocery-store chains felt the social pressure and, subsequently, insisted their providers of dairy (dairy farms and dairy co-ops) provide rBST-free products.  Science may have been on the side of dairy, but consumers viewed it as a violation of the social licence. An article in Dairy Herd Management in early 2017 stated, “…rBST will fade into history—driven there by ignorance, misinformation, and fear.”

In fact, exposure to the chemical in household products has been linked to more than a dozen deaths.

Exposure to the methylene chloride in household products has been linked to more than a dozen deaths.

Methylene Chloride

More recently, a chemical that has been used in household products provides an interesting contrast to the rBST issue.   Methylene Chloride, a chemical found in many home improvement isles, is commonly found in paint strippers.  The chemical is effective.  However, methylene chloride is also very toxic.  In fact, exposure to the chemical in household products has been linked to more than a dozen deaths.

The regulators have been slow to respond to consumer products containing methylene chloride.  In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that they are moving forward in banning the chemical in consumer products.  Beating the EPA to the punch were Walmart, Sherwin Williams, Lowes, and Home Depot who announced “bans” ahead of any mandatory regulations.

Methylene Chloride in Canada

Likewise in Canada, the regulators have moved slowly.  As reported in Chemical Watch, “Canada’s federal government named methylene chloride a toxic substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) more than a decade ago.  But it has not taken steps to regulate its use in paint strippers, nor required that such products be labelled to inform consumers about the risk they pose.”

While regulators consider their next step, at least one Canadian company is taking proactive steps.  “Retailer, Canadian Tire is voluntarily phasing out paint strippers that contain methylene chloride and N-methly-2-pyrrolidone (NMP) by the end of the year” (Chemical Watch 28 September 2018).

How companies have responded to methylene chloride in consumer products may indicate a greater awareness of non-mandatory issues. As we often say, it’s best to stay ahead of the environmental-regulatory curve.

Keeping Your Social Licence

Keeping a pulse on, and staying ahead of public perception, is difficult, if not impossible.  With that said, maintaining compliance with environmental regulations and promptly and effectively addressing environmental issues (such as when there is a release to soil/groundwater/water/air) is still one of the most effective means of “keeping” your social licence in check.   We can help you with these issues.

If you have questions or need assistance with an environmental issue, call us at 519-979-7300.  You can also send me an email.