Green champions

Regeneration agency Groundwork is training small companies to gain green credentials with a national scheme that sets standards for waste and energy use, reports Douglas Friedli

Small firms are proportionately the biggest polluters in the country. Unlike engineering giants, which are forced to brush up their image to please regulators, investors and customers, smaller companies claim they have neither the time nor the resources to invest in their environmental impact. But an increasing number find that having green credentials can make good business sense.

Regeneration agency Groundwork is working with small and medium-sized UK companies to improve their environmental performance. Adrian Warn, training co-ordinator for Groundwork Thames-side, says much of the pressure comes from large customers. `A lot of small and medium-sized enterprises find that having environmental credentials can help them in tendering for contracts,’ he says.

AB Electronic, a sensor manufacturer in Romford, Essex, started to look at environmental accreditation in 1998, and sent two members of staff, `environmental champions’, on a Groundwork training course this year. The objective was to obtain ISO 14001 status, which standardises a company’s environmental processes. So far, only about 10,000 companies are accredited worldwide, though this is expected to grow to 30,000 by the end of 2000.

Stephen Cahill-Hayes is one of AB Electronic’s `champions’ and joint quality manager. He says: `We initially thought we’d been lumbered with this despite having plenty of other stuff to do, but it opened my eyes. When we did the audit and toured the factory, I saw there was a whole load of work to do.’

The audit revealed that AB Electronic had failed to comply with some environmental regulations. The next priority was to educate the rest of the company.

Groundwork believes the best way to educate firms is to accentuate the positive. `They will be hostile if you wave a big stick and say, “We’ve got to save the planet”. But if you say you can save money, reduce waste and meet supply chain assessments they’re more receptive.’

Waste management can save cash. By separating different materials, some waste can be sold on. Keeping hazardous waste separate from other waste means only part of it need be treated as hazardous.

Other savings can be made by monitoring energy use. Eric Banks, environmental business service manager at Groundwork Thames-side, says: `You need to know which parts of the company or plant use the most to see where you can save.’

Companies which upgrade their environmental performance could avoid other long-term costs. AB Electronic’s customers are looking for recyclable materials in their products so suppliers which cannot supply them will soon lose business.

Banks believes environmental standards will become the norm in the next century. `It’s like health and safety was 20 years ago. People were initially sceptical, but it became the thing to have. Nobody now would want to deal with a company with no regard for health and safety.’