Slow progress on environment from SMEs

Small businesses are largely unaware of their responsibilities and the help and advice available to them, according to the Environment Agency.

Just 7% of small and medium businesses believe they may be involved in activities harmful to the environment and only 6% are aware of the NetRegs website, set up to help guide smaller firms through the complexities of environmental regulations.

Meanwhile, 31% said they had taken measures to improve their environmental performance in the past two years.

These disappointing figures were among those published in the SME-nvironment 2005 survey, published this week.

Stephen Alambritis, spokesman for the Federation of Small Businesses, told edie that while well-meaning, smaller outfits were often stretched.

“The small business community is well meaning but under enormous pressure,” he said.

“We like the fact there are lots of small businesses but it does mean they sometimes lack the expertise of a specialist.

“They all want to keep up but there has been an awful lot of environmental legislation and regulation introduced recently and members tell us they find it some of the most complicated legislation out there.

“We have got a number of small businesses where the owner proprietor has to keep an eye out for everything, whereas larger companies might have a specialised member of staff to cover their environmental obligations.

Mr Alambritis said 90% of the UK’s firms employed less than 20 people and it was this kind of micro-business that might sometimes struggle to keep up.
“Proprietors have to be experts in all aspects of legislation, from all Government departments,” he said.

The discrepancy in numbers between those who thought they were damaging the environment and those prepared to reduce their impact simply reflected human nature, he continued.

“When asked whether they’re business has an impact on the environment, they are likely to become a bit defensive, but then when given a chance to say what positive things they might have done they that they have done something.”

He said they often did not realise that they were reducing their impact on the environment through day-to-day activities like giving printer cartridges to charity shops, cutting down on unnecessary journeys or saving money by reducing waste.
Richard Martin of NetRegs said: “Although only a small number of businesses in the survey thought their activities could cause environmental harm, in reality every business has an environmental impact.

“This could be from activities such as road transport, storing chemicals or producing waste.

“It’s important for small businesses to take steps to lessen their impact, not least to protect the environment and avoid fines.

“The NetRegs website is designed to help small firms understand the environmental legislation that affects their particular activities.

“Many businesses don’t realise that ‘going green’ can also have cost benefits through measures such as using resources more efficiently.

“It’s encouraging to see more SMEs implementing practical steps to protect the environment, however there is still generally a low level of environmental awareness in small firms.”

Mr Alambritis said that as well as running a 24 hour helpline for its members the FSB also directed them towards the NetRegs website as a matter of course and agreed that the low number of companies which had heard of the site was disappointing.

He told edie the federation would renew its push on raising awareness of the website.

He also pointed out that many small businesses were not on the web so it was not always their first port of call when looking for information.

The spokesman told edie that while small businesses had their own set of problems when it came to environmental awareness and compliance with regulations, real progress was being made.

“There’s still a long way to go but we are getting there slowly but surely.”

According to EA estimates SMEs produce 60% of commercial waste in England and Wales and are responsible for between 60-80% of pollution incidents.

The importance of getting things right could not be denied, said Mr Alambritis, with 4.3 million small businesses making up a huge slice of British industry.

“They have to lead by example because they are the small businesses in the high street that people are coming into contact with on a day to day basis,” he said.

“While the impact of their individual actions might be small, put together they are quite considerable.”

By Sam Bond

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