Biodiversity and Ethical Business

Home page > Research > Late lessons for business: Why did (...) > Introduction


Late Lessons from Early Warnings (EEA, 2001) provides evidence of prominent cases in which early warning signals about potential hazards from the use of commercial products or operations have been neglected over long periods of time, eventually with grave consequences for human health and the environment. While the volume derives lessons which focus primarily on improving decision making of regulatory agencies, it becomes also very clear that decisions to act with precaution - or the failure to do so - often involved business actors. Private companies have been main drivers of innovative activity, and notwithstanding the benefits they have generated for society, they have also been at the forefront of developing potentially harmful product innovations or operations. In essence, EEA (2001) shows that business decisions also played a major role when things went wrong. So what are the reasons that explain why companies did not act with precaution when listening to early warning signals?

In this paper, we review EEA (2001) as well as some additional ‘early warnings’ cases. We look for patterns in these past experiences, and study relevant interdisciplinary academic literature with the aim to analyze and understand better the situation of companies that are confronted with early warnings. We identify several potential impediments for business decision makers to act in a precautionary manner, which we summarize in three ‘lessons about business’. We conclude with some reflections on how to support more precautionary business decision making in the face of early warning.

There is no doubt that many business actors recognize their responsibility to strive for economic benefits in line with a wider regard for human welfare and with respect for the natural environment (cf., WBCSD, 2010). This analysis should be useful for business decision makers to understand the challenges and potential pitfalls of which they should be aware when dealing with early warnings. For policy makers as well as the general public, the analysis should help to be prepared for objectively judging the role of business and to support business decision making in the interest of society.