Environment & Business: 2004 in review
Several changes were made to the way that businesses interact with the environment sector during 2004.In January, the importance of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in business was driven forwards when 80% of the FTSE 100 companies produced a moderate to full scale report on how sustainable their business practices were (see related story), and the Federation of European Accountants confirmed that CSR reports should be given the same onus and priority in companies as financial reporting (see related story).
With regards to transparency, particular concerns were voiced in the US by environmental organisations such as the Sierra Club over potential reporting loopholes in federal law enabling factory farms to fail to report toxic chemical releases that were potentially dangerous to health and the environment (see related story).
In the summer, the UK's Environment Agency celebrated an annual drop of 12% in the overall number of industrial pollution incidents, following a tightening of environment regulations, but big business was given a sharp reminder to push forwards after the best and worst corporate environmental performers were named and either praised or shamed in a government report (see related story).
Further changes to environmental reporting regulations were keenly anticipated by NGOs, who hoped that corporations shy of producing comprehensive environmental reports would be penalised more heavily (see related story). However, the final review of the updated regulations, announced by Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt in December, was slated by environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth, who said the rules had been watered down following extensive lobbying by big business, now leaving companies open to ignore a wide range of risks in their reports (see related story).
Meanwhile, a total lack of confidence in the way that environmental justice was carried out in the UK was expressed by solicitors, barristers and NGOs, a staggering 97% of which stated in a report that the UK civil justice system effectively prevented people from taking environmental criminals to court, due to high costs and too much red tape (see related story).
A House of Commons select committee also called on the government to implement more effective deterrents for those committing environmental offences, stating that current penalties were "paltry" and were more likely to encourage criminals than deter them (see related story).
Internationally, a shock report by Conservation International also revealed that meagre punishments to environmental crimes in biodiversity-rich areas such as Brazil, Indonesia and the Philippines were ensuring that illegal logging, fishing and wildlife trading provided a stable income for many of the people living in these areas, with the financial reward for one day's illegal work sometimes amounting to 78 times more than the respective cash penalty for environmentally criminal activities (see related story).
Though many waste, water, chemical and energy issues took the foreground for businesses during the course of 2004, Defra chose to lead the UK down a greener path into the New Year by setting an example, using its buying power to change attitudes (see related story), as Environment Minister Elliot Morley pointed out that encouraging sustainable procurement would bring social justice around the world, as well as ample environmental benefits.
Despite a damning report published in July by the Environmental Audit Committee stating that the government had barely made any progress to push sustainability issues forward (see related story), an independent analysis conducted by PriceWaterhouseCooper in December confirmed Mr Morley's commitment to environmentally and socially sustainable procurement (see related story).
This was then supported by London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who launched a free toolkit for small and medium sized businesses to help them meet challenges set by government targets and the Mayor's Green Procurement Code to buy greener products and services, along with other aspects of business resource efficiency (see related story).
By Jane Kettle