EMS in the dock

Experts have found there is no link between EMS and improved environmental performance. Peter McCrum finds out more

Is the emperor naked? The question was asked at the Environment Management Systems National Forum where it was suggested that in some cases EMS aren't delivering environmental benefits , and some companies that adopted EMS actually performed worse than they did prior to the systems being installed.

It seems that EMS are often seen as a means to an end and it is apparent that some companies install EMS simply to comply with regulatory requirements. A recent example was the prosecution of Henkel, which was fined £98,000 after its Belvedere works polluted a Kent watercourse with a caustic substance. The site has ISO 14001, but the Environment Agency said its management as "extremely poor".

Worse performance

A MEPI (Measuring Environmental Performance of Industry) project surveyed 270 firms and 430 sites across Europe and found that there was no positive relationship between certified EMS and improved performance. It also found that fossil fuel-based energy producers showed a negative correlation - their performance deteriorated.

Furthermore, the Policy Studies Institute has found that enforcement action is just as likely at sites with EMS as without and that waste sites with EMS perform worse than non-EMS waste sites.

So what is going on? Martin Cheeseborough of Remas, a three-year project designed to examine management systems in businesses across EU Member States, says: "The concern is that we have yet to see tangible evidence that confirms that the implementation of an EMS leads to improved performance. One of the issues we've got is that most of the work that has been done in this area indicates that EMS make no difference whatsoever in terms of better management." Cheesborough says this gives rise to concern. However the reasons behind it are unclear and there could be are number of explanations. "One of the factors is how we measure performance. The systems provide analysts with much more information that was previously available, so any failings that were not apparent before its installation are being highlighted by EMS. As a result, when environmental impacts are being measured, problems are being illuminated that weren't previously obvious."

A badge on the wall?

Cheeseborough also suggests there could be a more damning explanation behind these findings. "We need to look at why some sites put an EMS in place. Certainly, some sites just want the badge on the wall, so they can stay in business and in the supply chain. Effectively they are just buying the certificate - it's tokenism. Clearly, we need to differentiate between the businesses that take their responsibilities seriously and those that don't."

It is also suggested that EMS may lead to complacency by some companies that may believe monitoring data is enough, and don't act upon it. However, Aidan Turnbull of environmental consultancy Environ believes that despite these failings, EMS do have an important role to play in modern businesses. "The key thing is whether you hardwire the EMS into the company's cost accounting system, ensuring that the company's accountant plays an active role in setting and measuring environmental objectives.

"In my experience EMS which have a strong imput from the finance director are much more effective in achieving resource efficiency savings." And this is a key point - if there is an obvious and established link between cost savings and environmental impact then it is far more likely that EMS will deliver environmental improvements. "Companies that recognise the fundamental link between the environment and good business management - that is where you see good and effective management systems," says Turnbull.

So, although there may be no direct link between EMS and environmental improvements, it is the corporate culture that determines whether or not companies take their environmental responsibilities seriously. EMS can help them make meaningful strategic decisions, but in itself EMS will not guarantee better environmental performance.


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