Green help for small businesses

We need to adopt a partnership approach to help smaller businesses improve their environmental practices, says Richard Martin, project manager for NetRegs

Small businesses are essential to the UK economy, employing 12m people and contributing more than one trillion pounds in turnover. They are also valuable suppliers for many large companies and public sector organisations as they are often able to provide innovative, flexible and value-for-money solutions.

But small businesses are responsible for an estimated 60% of the commercial waste in England and Wales and as much as 80% of pollution incidents. They also tend to have limited time and resources to keep up with the increasing amounts of environmental legislation coming from the EU.

Businesses that fail to comply with environmental legislation risk costly fines and directors of the worst offending companies can be prosecuted. Yet a survey conducted for NetRegs of more than 8,000 smaller UK businesses found that only 18% could name any environmental legislation. Just 31% of respondents had heard of the Duty of Care Regulations, which cover the storage, handling and disposal of waste, and are applicable to all UK businesses. Not surprisingly, nearly half said they would like more help and advice on environmental issues.

Partnership approach

This is why the UK's environmental regulators joined forces to develop NetRegs - - a free website offering small businesses clear, authoritative guidance on the environmental regulations governing their activities.

Launched last month, NetRegs provides advice on general environmental issues affecting most businesses, such as waste disposal, water and energy efficiency. It also contains specific guidelines for more than 100 industry sectors - ranging from agriculture and construction to hotels and restaurants, office businesses and a range of manufacturing sectors - on the environmental legislation affecting them. The site also includes information on forthcoming legislation, good practice, and links to useful organisations.

NetRegs was founded on a UK-wide partnership between the Environment Agency in England and Wales, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), and the Environment & Heritage Service in Northern Ireland. Extending this partnership approach has been crucial to the development and promotion of the site.

Working with support organisations

During the past 18 months, NetRegs has worked closely with a wide range of business support organisations, trade associations, local authorities, consultants and established business advisors such as banks and accountants to develop an effective online environmental legislation resource that all businesses can benefit from. Taking into account that small businesses are often short on time and resources and overwhelmed with information, the Agency has worked with established and trusted communications channels to spread the word. As a result, many small businesses can now access the site via a link from their trade association's website, or will be directed to it by their local Business Link or Chamber of Commerce.

The fact that NetRegs already receives more than 19,000 visitors each month demonstrates to us that this approach is starting to pay dividends. But with over 3.7m small businesses in the UK, improving their environmental behaviour is still a huge challenge. Only 23% of the small businesses we surveyed had implemented any practical environmental measures and just 24% had an environmental policy in place.

Highlighting business benefits

Communicating the tangible commercial benefits of good green credentials to small businesses is crucial. NetRegs works closely with Envirowise, as well as organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses, to promote the cost savings that businesses can make by implementing environmental improvements. There is also a need to highlight that taking such measures provides opportunities for improved public image and customer and staff relations.

However, the results of recent focus groups with SMEs from a range of industry sectors across the UK indicate that there is a need to employ the stick as well as the carrot to persuade some small businesses to change their ways.

To do this, the regulators must take a firm but fair approach to ensure that small businesses understand that complying with the environmental legislation governing their activities is not optional. But larger companies and the public sector as a whole also have a significant role to play.

The public sector and larger businesses

Big business and the public sector are well placed to help promote improved environmental practice among the smaller businesses they work with. And it's not just a case of leading by example. By insisting that small suppliers have good environmental practices and systems in place, and offering help to achieve this, they can play a key role in achieving UK sustainable development objectives.

For example, the Environment Agency spent £87m in 2001/2 with suppliers and contractors with less than 250 staff, representing significant sustainability impacts. To manage this, it has been researching techniques aimed at limiting these impacts down through the supply chain, and has been rewarded by an award for excellence for its ethical procurement work by the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply. A key element of this strategy has been to take a life-cycle approach to environmental and ethical procurement risk assessment, with the development of proactive contract strategies that manage this risk.

It is this type of joined up approach - where effective regulation is combined with education, assistance and supply chain pressure - that is required if we are to make a real difference to the green credentials of smaller businesses in the UK. Reducing their environmental impact will be a crucial element in achieving the ambitious sustainable development targets that the nation faces.

NetRegs is just one part of the picture, but accessible resources such as this can enable us all to help SMEs make significant environmental improvements that will benefit their bottom line as well as the environment.



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