Partners in grime

Awareness of environmental issues is rising among small firms, according to a new survey. This is welcome, because in a survey five years ago the environment barely registered. But there is still widespread ignorance of environmental legislation and the benefits to business of good environmental performance. These were the findings of research commissioned by Groundwork, […]

Awareness of environmental issues is rising among small firms, according to a new survey. This is welcome, because in a survey five years ago the environment barely registered. But there is still widespread ignorance of environmental legislation and the benefits to business of good environmental performance.

These were the findings of research commissioned by Groundwork, an environmental, economic and social regeneration agency which began life in former minister Michael Heseltine’s efforts to regenerate Merseyside in the early 1980s. It works with small companies through local networks to improve their environmental performance.

The survey was carried out by MORI, which contacted 300 business managers from the small and medium sector (with a maximum of 250 employees). Professor Ann Smith and Robert Kemp of the University of Hertfordshire department of environmental science wrote the report based on the survey.

Smith said that, as a business issue, the environment ranks midway among companies’ most important concerns, with 13% mentioning it. Although well behind competitiveness (30%) and skills (21%), it ranked only just behind interest rates and productivity and ahead of the strength of sterling and the European single currency. Despite this a quarter were unable to name any environmental laws affecting them. One fifth did not know how much, if anything, it cost their company to comply with environmental law.

The survey revealed widespread acceptance that better environmental practices could bring business benefits, though opinion was divided on what those were. Better customer relations or company image were cited by a quarter of respondents, followed by cost savings.

About 12% claimed improved environmental performance had made savings, rising to 23% for firms certified to the ISO 14001 environmental management standard and 30% of those registered under Emas, the EU eco-management system.

But, said Smith, just over half the companies surveyed considered they would need practical help to meet their environmental responsibilities. There seemed to be confusion about where to go for advice.

Chief among organisations which companies said had the potential to persuade or influence them were regulators the Environment Agency and local authorities and customers. The companies preferred advice to be given face-to-face, preferably on their own site.

‘There is a gap in knowledge of the benefits,’ she said. ‘More work needs to be done to demonstrate to small companies the savings they could make.’ At the most basic level, a fine under the Duty of Care regulations under which companies have an obligation to monitor their waste streams and ensure that it is transferred to an authorised person is typically £2,000 £6,000.

Because of the confusion about where to go for advice, efforts to raise awareness, said Smith, need to be directed through existing agencies. Large companies, as customers of the smaller suppliers, have a role to play as mentors. Hence the initiative announced by Groundwork last week to raise awareness via customers and regulators.

Groundwork is seeking large firms to act as partners and provide introductions to its local suppliers. It would then offer an evaluation of the suppliers’ practices and agree an action plan leading to accreditation under ISO14001 or Emas. It would also offer training. The organisation has applied for funding under the European Social Fund’s objective four, ring-fenced for re-skilling the UK workforce. It aims to launch the scheme this September.

Colin Hicks, director of the DTI’s environment department, said: ‘The environmental challenge is not going to go away. But the DTI has a long-term commitment to improve the environmental performance of small companies. And we’re only going to be able to address the issue through partnership.’