Environmental mediation: the practical application of sustainable development

Environmental Mediation

“Sustainable Development”: an overworked concept that is used and abused in the most varied and possible facets. From the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals set forth by the United Nations to national incentives and passing through the European policies on development, this paradigm has taken on different faces and features that sometimes can convey a sense of obnubilation and abstraction. Even experts do not escape this ecological whirlwind that has invaded every area of ​​our lives and it is difficult to trace a line between ideology and practical application.

At the Milan Chamber of Arbitration, environmental mediation has provided an opportunity to see the practical application of this development model. After the experimental phase, it has in fact become an effective tool proposed by the Milan Arbitration Chamber to allow companies, private entities and public bodies to deal with environmental controversies.

Sustainable development and environmental mediation: some definitions

Environmental mediation is an alternative dispute resolution tool (ADR) that addresses all parties involved in environmental disputes (citizens, businesses, public administrations) both nationally and internationally. Because it usually takes long time to only set out who is right of wrong whether deciding how to repair the damage, ordinary justice does not fulfill the needs of environmental conflicts. It is necessary, instead, to quickly find creative and shared solutions that are effective and durable: situations of this kind, if properly managed, can become growth and development opportunities. How to make this opportunity of development sustainable?

The first definition of sustainable development was given by the Brundtland report in 1987: Sustainable development is a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own. This definition assumes that the resources we have are limited and scarce, and that we must use them appropriately, but above all, we must dispose of them baring in mind the needs of the future generations. This description is as fundamental as it might seem abstract to the citizen’s ear; It is true that we need to think in the long run and better manage our resources not to exhaust them, but, concretely, how do we do it?

Many organizations developed various guidelines, such as the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, and special certifications have been created to better navigate the unknown waters of this famous sustainability. In addition to the definition, over the years, various techniques have been developed that allow human activity to be sustainable and all rely on a precise mechanism: balancing the 3 competitive interests (economic, social and environmental) that permeate any sphere of human activity. One cannot think of creating the so-called “business as usual,” profit-oriented, without keeping in mind the impact this business will have on the social or environmental sphere.

Even from a purely economic point of view, it is easy to understand: an activity that does not take into account the neighborhood and the surrounding environment will definitely have more difficulty in the long run to operate, exposing itself to economic losses. This simple idea becomes clearer if applied to every-day-life businesses such as a local bar or a farm. On the other side, it is not possible either to create a business (unless it’s a fund-based organization) based solely on ethics and social: without economic sustainability even the most beautiful projects will fade on the long run. This balance, however, is fragile and may fail.

Generally, the precepts of sustainability should be followed a priori, and the hope is that all forms of business are based on these core principles, and that they rely on these directives and general guidelines becoming perfectly sustainable and guaranteeing a better future for our children. The reality is different. Even with the best intentions, trying to follow as many regulations as possible and being as much certified as possible, given the novelty and complexity of the “becoming sustainable” operation, it has been shown that both public and private actors can find themselves in situations of apparent conflict related to social and environmental issues.

The term “apparent” is not used casually, but rather gains a very important meaning in the sense that these conflicts arise because of lack of knowledge, lack of standards, lack of transparency, and often because those types of issues are new. Moreover, the actors involved in the matter may have no experience in managing them and neither do the courts, as there might be a lack of regulations. Environmental mediation helps to manage properly critical situations and to transform them into opportunities through dialogue, exploration of interests, confrontation, and collaboration and, hopefully, it helps to find a solution that meets everyone’s interests.

The common denominator between environmental mediation and sustainable development: balancing interests

But what causes conflicts that arise around environmental issues? The ubiquitous accountable factor is the asymmetry of interests; that is, an imbalance towards one of the three fundamental interests mentioned above: economic, social and environmental. In the United States, the often used People, Planet, Profit paradigm illustrates very well how this triad is interdependent and should be embedded in any human activity.

It is important to balance these interests not only to ensure a better quality of life for the present and a prosperous future for posterity; but also in order to grant the activity in question, the business idea, to thrive for a long time, and anyone who starts a path in the economic market hopes that its business will last over time.

Mediating creates a space for confrontation and sharing where to examine future opportunities. By giving space to all the interests at stake, the objective is to rebalance these three pillars. Sustainable development is an idea, a paradigm, a philosophy, but environmental mediation represents its practical application, the instrument for restoring the balance that allows us to give back the right space to each dimension; environmental, economic and social.

Lea di Salvatore