International environmental management: vive la différence!

What happens when a company's environmental management is carried out on an international basis? Kathryn Vowles of consultancy firm Parsons Brinckerhoff looks into the do's and don'ts of operating environmental management systems in more than one country.

From a practical point of view, the EMS need only cover its defined scope. A UK based company, with international operations, can define the scope as UK operations only. This is, in corporate responsibility terms, legitimate when the high environmental risk operations are in the UK – for example, manufacturing in the UK and sales outlets in other countries. In addition, when initiating a system it is best to start in familiar territory, rolling out to further locations once established.

There are pitfalls in transferring existing systems. The basis of an EMS is the policy. Policies applicable to global concerns can lack substance. A centralised policy needs to be carefully developed; alternatively, individual policies can be created to address local conditions.

Roles and responsibilities are important within an EMS. Commitment from a manager with international responsibilities is vital to give the EMS sufficient weight. However, responsibility needs to be devolved to each location in order for the roles and resources to be allocated to drive continual improvement. In some countries, if environmental legislation is applied with less vigour, fewer resources are available to the environmental representative.

Training and awareness is vital – there needs to be awareness at every location in order to drive improvement. General awareness of EMS will vary from country to country depending upon the level of EMS uptake. It is important that training materials are applicable, as concepts can be misinterpreted. A term such as ‘appropriate off-site disposal of waste’ may be interpreted in very different ways. To avoid such confusion it is helpful if the trainer is from the country in which the training is being delivered, and has a good understanding of the system.

Environmental legislation varies from country to country. Therefore each country will need an individual register of legislation. The expertise needs to be available to maintain the register. Differing legislative pressures are also likely to be reflected in monitoring and measuring programmes. Therefore applicable procedures may need to be adapted. Best practice may also depend on location, therefore objectives and targets will need to be adapted for each location to ensure they are realistic and effective. Available waste disposal facilities, for example, may vary considerably. Levels of raw material wastage could depend on relative cost and availability. Therefore these attitudes need to be reflected in the objectives and targets.

Some difficulties can be overcome through regional adaptations and effective communication. There can be significant benefits associated with the dissemination of best practice and benchmarking performance between countries. However, it is clear that more than minor adjustments to the system is required. Development of a local system based on the key objectives of the parent company can encompass the best of both worlds.

For your stakeholders – customers, suppliers, neighbours, regulators, and employees – it is important that you are addressing your business’s most significant environmental impacts, whether in your home nation or on an international basis. Pressure groups will look for the weakest link in terms of corporate responsibility. Make sure that is not your overseas operation that lets you down.

With thanks to Rob Evans, Parsons Brinckerhoff Ltd

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