Step by step

Is your firm too small to commit to achieving ISO 14001? A new British standard could provide the solution. Anne Sayer reports

Getting an environmental management system in place has traditionally been the preserve of larger firms. Smaller companies often do not have the time or inclination to consider their environmental impacts, let alone embark on what can be a long road to ISO 14001 or EMAS. According to an Environment Agency survey earlier this year, 86% did not even consider their activities to be harmful to the environment - this despite small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) generating about 60% of the UK's commercial waste and being responsible for 80% of pollution incidents.

But more and more clients are stipulating that their suppliers - even the smallest ones in the chain - put in place some sort of environmental management system (EMS). A new standard, BS8555, was launched on 30 April and is aimed at enabling SMEs to do this by adopting a more user-friendly stage-by-stage process. Although the ultimate goal of the standard is to guide firms wanting to implement ISO 14001 or EMAS, this is by no means its sole purpose. Companies will be able to earn certification and recognition from those further up the supply chain for getting certain aspects of an EMS in place using the standard.

Creation of the standard has been administered by not-for-profit organisation the Acorn Trust. The trust's chairman, Chris Sheldon, admits it can be hard to get SMEs interested in the environment, let alone get them to implement an EMS. BS8555 is different, he explains, as it has an obvious "business relevance". Much of this is to do with the standard's focus on environmental performance indicators (EPIs). "It is really good to get businesses to develop EPIs early on in the process, and get them interested in the relevance of these to their company," Sheldon explains.

Project Acorn

The seeds for the new standard were sown under Project Acorn - a three-year pilot funded by the DTI. Launched in 2000, the project was specifically aimed at assisting SMEs overcome the barriers to implementing a certified EMS by providing them with a model that would make the process somewhat less daunting. "The idea was to look at phased implementation of an EMS," Sheldon explains, but stresses: "It is slightly more comprehensive than just cutting up ISO 14001 into pieces."

Eighteen months in, the project partners turned their attention to the issue of intellectual property rights for Project Acorn's staged approach to EMS implementation. "They realised that intellectually speaking, this was a good pilot. A way had to be found to protect the integrity of the model, while making sure it remained accessible to the people who needed to use it," Sheldon explains. The Acorn Trust was created to take over administration of the project, with Sheldon named as its head. At that point he began discussions with the national standards organisation BSI. "The Acorn model was geared towards delivering ISO 14001 and EMAS accreditation - it made sense to create a guidance standard," he continues.

BSI invited the trust to submit a proposal for the standard, which it duly did. After some editing BS8555 was created, or, to give it its full title: BS8555: 2003 Environmental Management Systems - Guide to the Phased Implementation of an Environmental Management System including the use of Environmental Performance Evaluation. "There was discussion about whether to include SME in the title," Sheldon adds. It was eventually omitted: although the standard was designed with smaller businesses in mind, firms of any size can use it, he says.

A phased approach

Structurally, the standard is divided into six phases. "Most SMEs will not need to go beyond the first three phases," Sheldon points out. "Once you have completed those, you know what environmental laws apply to you, you know you are compliant and you have in place some elements to improve your performance." Phases four, five and six are more about "imposing formality" onto the process. "The core of an EMS is in the first three phases."

Nevertheless, most of the companies that took part in Project Acorn went all the way to phase five and obtained ISO 14001 certification. One firm is even aiming for EMAS. Market research also backs up the results of the pilot, indicating that most firms interested in the new standard would see it as a way of achieving ISO 14001. Sheldon says there has been excellent feedback from industry. Martin Baxter, operations manager at the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) says that anything that encourages firms to implement an EMS is welcome. "There are currently some 1.4m companies registered at Companies House - only about 3,000 have some sort of accredited environmental management system in place. That's an awful lot who are not engaged in formal environmental management."

Stanbridge Precision Turned Parts, a supplier to the automotive industry, was one of the firms that took part in Project Acorn and attained ISO 14001. Several automotive companies had been pushing for their suppliers to implement an EMS, explains Steve Welch, Stanbridge's environmental quality systems manager. The company had tried to get the standard two years previously, but was thwarted by its lack of understanding of the requirements.

Quantifying savings

Welch is full of praise for Project Acorn's staged approach. He estimates the firm eventually spent around £100,000 obtaining ISO 14001, but can see the cost benefits, as well as the environmental ones, striking a chord with Sheldon's claims of "business relevance". "We will claw this money back," Welch says. The company has already been able to quantify some of the savings resulting from the implementation of the EMS - for example a reduction in the unit cost of producing certain parts.

In the meantime, the original funding for Project Acorn is being wound up. But the Acorn Trust will continue its work from the offices of IEMA, moving from BSI where it has been based for the last year.

As part of its supporting role IEMA will also be involved in sorting out the issue of accreditation for BS8555. Although there are firms keen to buy into the new standard, and companies ready to offer certification services, no accreditation criteria have been agreed as yet.

Supply chain mentoring

One of the trust's roles, once it has moved offices, will be the continued development of a supply chain mentoring scheme. This involves larger firms that might already have well-established environmental management systems in place providing advice on implementation to smaller companies further along the chain.

Sheldon admits that the mentoring aspect of the trust's work "was not as successful as hoped", even though larger firms are often looking for their suppliers to provide their own evidence of environmental management. "We found that most large companies never talk to SMEs and so a lot do not know where the environmental risks are."

Within Project Acorn, mentoring will involve larger companies looking down the supply chain, identifying environmental risks and guiding the firms involved over whether they need to implement part or all of BS8555. "It needs a helping hand, but once it is set up it will work incredibly well," Sheldon promises.

A powerful tool

A successful supply chain mentoring scheme has been run in the construction industry, administered by CIRIA. Funded by the DTI, the project involved 45 firms getting to Project Acorn's phase three, with BAA, Amec and French Kier Anglia acting as leaders in the mentoring process.

The scheme was developed through a series of workshops, and construction sector SMEs will shortly be able to obtain a guidance document on the mentoring approach. "We had a real range of organisations taking part, varying in size from a two-man band to a company with 4,000 employees," explains Greg Hall of CIRIA's environment group, the project manager for the scheme.

Hall describes supply chain mentoring as "a powerful tool" for getting through to small firms about environmental management. "There is virtually no other way of doing it."

The project has also just been granted further DTI funding to take the scheme further and offer participants support for achieving ISO 14001, EMAS or an integrated management system. Two-thirds of the original 45 have already said they are keen to be involved. Hall says that a number of large firms have expressed interest in running and funding their own mentoring schemes, a commitment which will be needed if the concept is to continue to find success beyond the pilot project.



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