Multinationals have a responsibility to take care of people and planet throughout their production networks

Multinationals have a duty to prevent or reduce foreseeable negative impacts on workers, communities and the environment, even if these impacts are caused by other actors in their production networks. That is the position Professor of Private Law Paul Verbruggen takes in his inaugural address at Tilburg University on Friday, November 3, 2023.

The media frequently report on the systematic exploitation of workers in Asian textile factories and on the large-scale pollution of living environments in Africa and Latin America as a result of extractive industries. In the Netherlands, too, the pollution of soil, air, and water near production sites such as those of 3M, Chemours, and Tata Steel attracts public attention.

Duties of care

In his address, Paul Verbruggen outlines the evolution of the duties of care that large corporations have for these and similar negative externalities of their production activities. There is a parallel with product liability. It is long-established in the law that consumers are protected against unsafe products manufactured and traded in international production chains. The arguments supporting such protection can also be applied to situations where unsafe production in such chains causes physical or environmental harm. Workers, bystanders, and local communities are equally deserving of protection against negative external production effects.

Multinationals thus carry a wider responsibility for negative impacts on people and planet: their duty of care is not limited to their own production activities but extends to business actors in their global value chains. As courts and legislative institutions, acting at national or international level, are imposing new legal responsibilities, multinationals will have to be more sensitive to the risks both they and their network partners create.

Production liability

Verbruggen argues that multinationals carefully organize their networks to monitor the circumstances under which production takes place at their network partners’ sites, as well as the effects of these circumstances on people and the environment. To that end, they use complex private systems of rules, enforcement, and technology. These systems increase the level of knowledge and understanding of structural risks caused by production activities in their networks. They also create opportunities for controlling how network partners operate, and for intervening when things go wrong.

In those circumstances, multinationals can foresee structural risks of harm and ought to have a duty of care vis-ŕ-vis those harmed, Verbruggen contends. The breach of that duty of care can lead to what he terms production liability.

Prof. Paul Verbruggen

Professor of Private Law

Paul Verbruggen was appointed Professor of Private Law, with a focus on liability law, at Tilburg University on July 1, 2022. He studied law at Tilburg Law School (LLM in 2005, MPhil in 2007) and supervised by Professor Fabrizio Cafaggi, he obtained a doctorate at the European University Institute in Florence (M.Res in 2009, PhD in 2013) on enforcing transnational private regulation in consumer markets. He was a guest researcher at the law schools of the London School of Economics and Political Science (2011) and Oxford University (2018). Verbruggen was awarded an NWO VENI grant for the project ’The constitutionalization of private regulation’ (2017-2021), held the Tijdschrift voor Privaatrecht (Private Law Journal) rotating chair at KU Leuven (2019-2020), and was a guest lecturer in Global Law there (2019-2021).

Verbruggen specializes in Dutch and European liability law, and in his research he focuses primarily on the allocation of legal responsibility for health, environmental, and safety risks within global value chains and production networks. Using legal comparative analyses, Verbruggen studies the impact of European law on national private law. His other areas of interest include legal methodology and the use of digital technologies in law and legal research. Verbruggen serves on the Editorial Board of the Dutch Consumer Law Journal (Tijdschrift Consumentenrecht en handelspraktijken, TvC) and is an academic collaborator of the Journal of Private law, Notary, and Registration (Weekblad voor Privaatrecht, Notariaat en Registratie, WPNR). Since July 1, 2022, he has also been appointed Director of the Global Law Bachelor’s program of Tilburg Law School.

Inaugural address

Professor Paul Verbruggen will deliver his inaugural address in the Tilburg University Auditorium on Friday, November 3, 2023, at 16:15 hrs. The address, titled ’Production liability: duties of care in international production networks’ (Productieaansprakelijkheid: Over zorgplichten in internationale productienetwerken), will be livestreamed.