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Is Umicore really the most sustainable company in the world?

By Nick Meynen

UMICORE is elected as the ‘most sustainable company in the world’. A Canadian magazine that claims to defend ‘clean capitalism’ has put the Belgian company at number 1 in its global top 100 of ‘sustainable’ businesses. But UMICORE has not fully come to terms with its past in Hoboken, a 30.000+ community that is part of Antwerp, Belgium.

In 2004, Umicore signed an historic agreement with the Flemish government for 77 million euro, mainly to replace heavily contaminated soil, for example in gardens of hundreds of people around their factory in Hoboken. Today, the company does an outstanding job in the field of recycling and in efforts to reduce emissions. But does that compensate for their remaining local ecological debt in Hoboken?

In the FP 7 project CEECEC (Civil Society Engagement with Ecological Economics) we worked with Lea Sebastien on a study to calculate the local ecological debt or environmental liability of a single industrial plant: Umicore in Hoboken. The study was guided by Professor Tom Bauler from the ULB and Professor Joan Martinez-Alier from the UAB. We had the opportunity to see Thomas Leysen and to present to this chairman of the board of Umicore our results: more than 310 million euro of ecological debts, based on the cost of cancers, treatments of children with too much lead in their blood and the interdiction to grow food in Hoboken since 1973. All of this is a direct consequence of 123 years of pollution from the Umicore factory, as we have detailed in our study. In December 2012, the full study appeared as one chapter of the book Ecological Economics from the Ground Up, a new textbook for ecological economists published by Routledge, London.

UMICORE gave little credibility to the ‘post-normal science’ (Funtowicz and Ravetz) and the ‘popular epidemiology’ methods applied. It did not like our quantification of damages. It dismissed the study as being non-scientific. However, chapter 16 of the book presents our research that shows that the ecological debt of UMICORE in Hoboken is a real and measurable environmental liability, subject now to public scrutiny.

The amounts calculated in the study are not carved in stone but rather give a best estimate possible of the actual damages. The sums amounted to around 50 million euros of ecological debt for the economic loss of not growing vegetables and fruits, another 50 million for all cancer treatments, around 200 million euros for the cancer deaths (that should go as compensation to relatives) and another 10 million for the treatment of children with lead in their blood. All calculations, sources and details are described in chapter 16 of this book, just published, Ecological Economics from the Ground Up (Environmental Justice and Ecological Debt in Belgium: The UMICORE case).

In this study, the scope was limited to the local ecological debt of the company only in Hoboken. It was not about its ecological debt in other locations in Europe, neither on the global and historical ecological debt by the wrongful appropriation of commodities in its colonial past. We discussed very concrete issues for very specific people in Hoboken. Thomas Leysen told us that every morning he wants to look in the mirror and know that he made the right decisions. But has he fully come to terms with the past? And can a company that works sustainable today but still has a huge debt to the people around their factory be called the most “sustainable” company in the world?

This chapter on Umicore in the new book Ecological Economics from the Ground Up is typical in that it does not mince words, and also in that it takes up a topic of contemporary interest, a burning case study, to teach some concepts and theories of ecological economics. Other chapters deal with wood exports from Cameroon, the conflicts on waste management and the “ecomafia” in southern Italy, the conflict also in Italy on the TAV line between Torino and Lyon, the copper mining conflict brewing up in the Cordillera del Condor in Ecuador. New chapters have been added from the EJOLT project on the energy-mining complex in South Africa, on a multi-criteria assessment that helped to save a wetland in Costa Rica, on the forced sedentarization of pastoralists in Tibet based on doubtful environmental reasons. Other chapters analyze bottom up solutions to forest and water management in villages in India, and discuss nature conservation in national parks in Croatia and Serbia, and also in the Tana Delta in Kenya.

The book forms the core of the next EJOLT on-line course together with some new EJOLT reports. It has been edited by Hali Healy, Joan Martinez-Alier, Leah Temper, Mariana Walter and J. F. Gerber. It takes a unique and much-needed bottom-up approach to teaching ecological economics and political ecology, using case studies that focus on a wide range of internationally relevant topics, to teach the principles, concepts, methods and tools of these fields, which are seen as increasingly important in the context of the current triple social, economic and environmental crisis. The book provides learning materials which are grounded in the experience of EJOs (environmental justice organizations), with case studies chosen by them and developed collaboratively with leading ecological economists. The case studies come from Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa, and are presented thematically along three lines: 1) social metabolism and accounting methods, 2) institutions and participation, and 3) valuation and environmental policy tools. Core tools, concepts and glossary terms are embedded in topics chosen as a matter of urgency by activist organizations, related to mining and fossil fuel extraction, integrated transport infrastructure development, deforestation and agro-fuel production, sustainable tourism, waste management, wetlands and water management, payments for ecosystem services, environmental liabilities and corporate accountability, natural disasters and hazards.

Ecological Economics from the Ground Up has been designed to be an accessible learning aid for students of the sustainability sciences and for those civil society organizations that recognize the value that ecological economics and political ecology tools and methods hold for their research and advocacy work. This is a book that shows that in fields like ecological economics and political ecology, the line between activists and academics is and should be very thin. Concepts like environmental justice, popular epidemiology, corporate accountability, biopiracy, land-grabbing, ecological debt and “décroissance” (degrowth) took roots in activist movements before academics dissected and used them.

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