Its just a phase

Whether you're a small firm looking to improve your green potential or a larger company looking to roll out ISO 14001, the Acorn scheme could be the answer, writes Richard Meddings

The Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment’s (IEMA) Acorn Scheme offers accredited recognition for organisations evaluating and improving their environmental performance through the phased implementation of an environmental management system (EMS) in accordance with the British Standard BS8555.

Certifying an EMS alone (ISO 14001), or even taking the extra step and verifying public environmental performance statements (EMAS), does not automatically lead to the desired environmental or business benefits for customers. Many suppliers, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), feel that the management systems approach inherent in either scheme is too cumbersome, doesn’t suit their management style, and postpones all the rewards of achievement and recognition until the end of a potentially very long process.

The implementation of ISO14001/EMAS is perceived by many SMEs as onerous in terms of time and money. It isn’t surprising that organisations already challenged for resources are unwilling to commit to engaging in what they see as such an uninviting process. The result is interia; potential business gains (as well as liabilities) throughout the supply chain go unnoticed and unmanaged.

Using the clear milestones set out in BS8555, Acorn’s proven methodology provides a practical, manageable and pragmatic approach whereby tangible results can be seen early on in the process.

Organisations have flexibility in how they choose to participate in the scheme, with the rate and extent of performance improvement kept firmly in the hand of the individual companies.

The organisation may decide to be inspected after implementing all of the stage profiles in a particular phase, before progressing to the next phase. Alternatively, it might decide to implement two or more phases before being inspected, in which case achievement of all of the relevant phases will be inspected during one inspection.

Though the scheme can ultimately lead participants to ISO 14001 or EMAS if they wish, there’s no commitment to progress through all the phases. Once the rewards are evident, however, that’s just what many organisations choose to do. A system of independent inspection is central to providing recognition that an organisation has met the requirements of a particular Acorn phase and continues to improve its environmental performance.

Independent inspection is provided by Acorn Inspection Bodies approved by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) which also accredits the ISO 14001 certification bodies and EMAS verifiers in the UK. UKAS-accredited recognition gives participants and their customers confidence that the environmental and business benefits are real and it gives assurance that companies are on track if they want to progress to ISO 14001 or EMAS.

A recent government position statement on EMS, published by Defra last October, helps to reinforce the credibility of the scheme, officially acknowledging Acorn alongside ISO 14001 and EMAS in particular, identifying its strengths in engaging supply chains and providing customer assurance.

Best price

Making a case for the environment in business terms is always at its sharpest in terms of a company’s procurement strategy and supply-chain management. What used to be expressed as “getting the best price” has now become “getting the highest quality for the best price while enhancing company environmental performance and limiting its exposure to environmental liability”.

A key feature of Acorn is the opportunity for participants to provide validated performance data to their customers, backed by independently accredited inspection. This opens up many opportunities for larger companies to engage their supply chains in environmental improvement in a meaningful way. Not only can they specify a certain Acorn phase for different suppliers to achieve, using environmental risk criteria, but they can also specify key environmental performance data either of the supplier or relating to the product or service. This makes for a powerful management tool, with the bonus that they don’t have to undertake separate supplier audits which helps to keep costs down.

Full management system

For example, a supplier identified as having a key position in either environmental or business terms may have complex processes and toxic waste outputs. If deemed appropriate, they could be asked to achieve a full management system, using the Acorn scheme to progress through all five phases at a rate agreed with the customer, eventually perhaps going as far as ISO 14001.

Meanwhile, another much lower-impact supplier might only need to progress to Phase 3 of the scheme in order to garner the benefits, hit their environmental targets and satisfy customers that the requisite level of control and improvement is being achieved.

Organisations participating in the Acorn scheme will also be entered on the IEMA Acorn Register. This contains the contact details of the organisation, its location, the phase level it has achieved and its industry sector (NACE code). And it provides an opportunity for organisations to promote their environmental credentials and deliver a valuable resource for those customers wanting to source products from suppliers who have demonstrated environmental performance improvement.

Acorn appeals to a diverse cross-section of organisations from large firms to small and micro companies across all business sectors. Large companies have the potential to manage supply chains more intelligently and benchmark performance without committing smaller organisations to the bigger steps of ISO 14001 and EMAS.

Land Securities Group is one large organisation which has implemented Acorn to Phase 4. The company was featured in Environment Business’s EMS Supplement published in April. A leading property investment, management and development organisation, the company provides office accommodation for more than 300,000 people and owns or manages over 10Mm2 of property accommodation.

The organisation wanted an EMS in place, certified to a high level, that would underline its ethical and environmentally responsible approach to business activity. However, the group found the delivery of its services was inextricably linked to the performance of its contractors and service partners, many of whom were smaller companies. The IEMA Acorn Scheme was found to be the most appropriate option to encourage its suppliers to take environmental management seriously.

The Waste and Recycling Action Programme (WRAP) is a government funded, not-for-profit organisation working with public, private and community sectors to promote sustainable waste management. WRAP’s inspection to Phase 1 undertaken by LRQA, demonstrates how recognition for environmental management improvements can be gained at any level.

Clear Channel UK, the UK’s leading outdoor advertising company has been successfully inspected to Phase 3 of Acorn, the first inspection to be undertaken by Acorn Inspection Body, Global Certification. The company’s site in Hayes, Middlesex has received the Phase 3 accreditation which employs around 60 staff, with the intention to role out the EMS to their other operational branches across the country over the next two years.

A number of SMEs have engaged in the Acorn scheme, many of which have come through regional initiatives such as the Groundwork and Business Link Training Programme in Northamptonshire and the STEM Project – a three-year programme assisting 270 SMEs to achieve accredited inspection to Phase 3 of Acorn in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Diverse mix

Working with the UKAS-accredited Acorn Inspection Body NQA, a number of firms have already achieved Phase 3. The SMEs included represent a diverse mix of business sectors, including Buttercrane Centre Limited, which is responsible for the property management of the Buttercross shopping complex (a 22,300m2 site in south-east Northern Ireland receiving 5.5 million visitors a year), SK Electrical (a small organisation with 13 employees and providing portable appliance and fixed installation electrical safety testing) to a small family butchers, William Baird in Newry, County Down.

The flexible approach that Acorn offers means that everyone can participate and get some form of recognition for what they have achieved. This is why there are large companies engaged in the scheme, as well as small ones.

For further information, please contact Richard Meddings at the IEMA on 01522 540069, [email protected] or visit

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