Perfectly formed?

Project Acorn, launched in May 2000, aims to bring together large companies with their small-to-medium sized suppliers to develop mutually beneficial environmental management programmes. Sound familiar?

The key term here is "mutual". SMEs, left to their own devices, will tend to consider the merits of environmental management right up until the phone rings. Things like the day-to-day running of operations and the winning of new orders so often get in the way.

The pressure, however, is building. Not specifically on SMEs, but rather on industry as a whole.

Environmental legislation is beginning to bite; liability issues are catching the attention of the finance director. Larger companies, which may have been involved in environmental initiatives such as ISO 14001 or the European Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) for some time, have come to realise that the environmental impacts of the products they manufacture or the services they deliver are often rooted in the components, materials and services supplied to them by other companies within their supply chains. These larger companies, therefore, have to address the environmental impacts arising from the activities of companies within those supply chains.

Five-level approach
Project Acorn, a joint initiative by the DTI, DETR, BSI and environmental consultants 14000 & ONE Solutions, is a two-year pilot programme to help SMEs improve their environmental performance. It offers a five-level approach to implementing an environmental management system with an optional sixth level that facilitates public reporting or registration to EMAS. BSI and the DTI have been looking for some considerable time for an EMS implementation model capable of removing or minimising the barriers to SMEs adopting EMSs. The search culminated in the discovery of an incremental implementation approach to ISO 14001 developed by the Irish Productivity Centre (IPC) in Dublin. In addition, the DTI has sponsored a feasibility study into the application of 'Environmental Performance Evaluation' (EPE) techniques, principally to act as a less formal option to EMS in smaller businesses.

The study, undertaken by 14000 & ONE Solutions, showed that EPE can help in managing environmental aspects and impacts, as well as demonstrating continual improvement right from the very beginning whilst at the same time developing performance indicators specific to the company or organisation. It is here that project Acorn stands out, in that it demonstates a recognition that the EMS cannot be all things to all organisations. Janet Gascoigne, Acorn's project director, explains: "It's all geared up to how SME's work. Maybe a formal management system isn't appropriate. Different elements may become more appropriate as they can see how they fit in, rather than seeing it as something that they have to do. If it doesn't fit around how the company works, and enable it to work more efficiently, then it isn't going to bring any benefit.

"It enables even the very smallest organisation to at least start to engage in environmental improvement and management if they couldn't at this stage contamplate ISO 14001 because it involves too much time and money. They can at least make a start."

Demonstrate progress
At each level of the EMS implementation, individuals from each company receive training so that they can develop their company's system and the environmental performance indicators that will allow them to track and report (internally or externally) on their company's environmental performance over time, and benchmark performance in critical areas. After each level of the scheme has been implemented, the company is assessed under BSI's certification process to ensure that the requirements of each level have been met. If the company is successful it is certified at the end of each level so that it can demonstrate progress to its key customers and other interested stakeholders.

Companies can, however, choose not to pursue the EMS to completion, instead remaining at a specific, relevant level. In this situation BSI simply re-audits the company once or twice a year to ensure compliance with that particular standard and ensure continual improvement.

The project has attracted DTI grant-in-aid support to assist 250 companies throughout the EMS implementation process and to train 275 of their employees in the use of enviornmental management tools and systems. Participants will, however, be expected to make a contribution. Each company will be asked to pay for the training they receive, on-site support and the audits that are conducted at the end of each level. (Typically, these costs would equate to £100 per delegate of training costs at each level; and £530 per day for auditing.)

New standard
"That's the bottom end of the supply chain - the suppliers," says Gascoigne. "But Acorn is also about working with larger organisations at the top of the supply chain. We call them mentors."

The two-year pilot programme involves around 30 such mentor companies, the role of which, according to Gascoigne, is twofold: "One is to bring on board their suppliers to participate in the project, and the second one is to work with them on supply chain evaluation. How do they decide what it is they want from their suppliers? How should they manage the environmental risk presented by their suppliers? Because not all suppliers represent the same level of risk."

Ultimately, it is hoped, Acorn will lead to the publication of a new British Standard that provides an incremental implementation approach to ISO 14001 that incorporates environmental performance evaluation techniques.



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