Smaller steps to a daintier footprint

Iema's Acorn scheme lets companies gain environmental credentials in bite-sized chunks. It is a logical system with benefits for small and large firms, says Catherine Golds

There are many incentives for an organisation to improve its environmental credentials. Whether it is due to the pressure of mounting environmental legislation and regulation, ever-rising energy and waste disposal costs, or demand from business partners and other stakeholders, operations of all shapes and sizes have good reasons to build environmental sustainability into their strategy.

Acting against these motivations, however, is a perception that making changes will be complex, time-consuming and expensive. Moreover, it can be hard to define workable objectives and translate their achievement into something meaningful both to those within the organisation and the outside world.

This was the feeling at Visit London, the official visitor organisation for the capital. As a partnership enterprise, which also acts as a voice for London’s tourism industry, its board and executive team believed in taking a lead in environmental responsibility. Keen to take the best approach and achieve officially recognised standards, they called on Global Action Plan (GAP), an environmental charity, to advise and assist on becoming more environmentally aware and responsible.

GAP helped Visit London to develop a structured environmental management system (EMS), made tangible by working towards British Standard BS 8555. This describes how to implement a generic EMS, and can be used as a route towards internationally recognised ISO 14001. This standard specifies a process for controlling and improving a company’s environmental performance. But it can be a large undertaking for smaller organisations or those thinking about sustainability for the first time. To make EMS easier, the Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment (Iema) created the step-by-step Acorn scheme of recognition.

With Acorn, EMS implementation is broken down into a series of manageable phases using BS 8555. Through a phased implementation, it provides a defined route towards ISO 14001, helping organisations to evaluate and improve their environmental performance.

There are six phases, which can be taken at a pace to suit the organisation. Achieving all six phases progresses to ISO 14001. But phases one to five can be recognised individually, and offer benefits to the organisation and its stakeholders. Acorn is authorised by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS), the sole national accreditation body recognised by the government.

For Visit London, this phased approach was ideal. GAP designed an EMS that was centred on the creation and training of Environment Champions, an internal grouping that would lead and disseminate environmental awareness throughout the organisation and maintain sustainability in the long term. Once the programme was up and running, GAP brought in NQA, a UK assessment and inspection body for the Acorn scheme, to assess its new EMS with the aim of achieving phase three registration.

NQA assessors have experience of auditing organisations of different sizes and complexity across a variety of sectors. They work closely with management and employees to develop a thorough understanding of the business in order to deliver value-added certification services.

Amy Wilson, a business advisor at GAP, was responsible for selecting Visit London’s assessment body. “It was important to us and our client that the assessment would be cost and time effective. The service received was helpful and reassuring, with the assessors clearly explaining what they were doing and why.”

Following the assessment, Visit London was delighted to attain its Acorn phase three registration. Martin Singfield, finance director at the organisation, describes the benefits: “Implementing an Acorn-accredited EMS has delivered measurable improvements in recycling and energy efficiency. But as a public facing body we were also concerned to demonstrate social responsibility. Having the certification is an officially recognised mark of our achievements and ongoing intentions.”

By breaking down the ISO 14001 standard into more manageable pieces, Acorn has made it possible for organisations without large financial and human resources to reduce their environmental footprint and achieve early recognition.

Use of utilities

Part of the process of achieving an EMS is to review all activities and systems. If you can cut your use of utilities, make better use of resources and make your systems more efficient you will save money, as well as reducing your impact on the environment. These benefits are relevant to all organisations.

Registration to the Acorn scheme or ISO 14001 is increasingly a necessary condition for being on tender lists. Just as important, it gives employees improved job satisfaction through empowerment, which is part of this continuing process.

Increased employee satisfaction was one of the key outcomes of EMS implementation at Compass, an international catering business. The firm gained Acorn certification in 2006. Following this, Compass reported a number of benefits, notably increased employee fulfilment. The EMS involved all employees in the carbon footprint reduction plan, with extensive communication, encouragement for staff at all levels to get involved and constant support for all employees in implementing new standards.

Thanks to the EMS initiative, Compass has been able to develop a sense of greater unity and inclusion among its staff and the learning experience has caused many to adopt changes in their home lives.

For Braham Electrical, a firm of electrical contractors based in Warrenpoint, Northern Ireland, attaining phase three of the Acorn scheme was fundamental to winning new business. NQA assessed the company, which employs 82 staff, to certify that it had the correct environmental controls in place that were a prerequisite for proposals to local schools, hospitals and other public sector organisations. As managing director Stephen McQuaid confirms: “Having the Acorn registration has allowed us to tender for, and go on to win, several jobs that we would not have been able to contend for otherwise. It was a learning process, but one that has delivered real benefits to the company, and lets our clients as well as ourselves know that we are complying with government requirements.”

Merseyside Fire & Rescue has also been certified to phase five of the Acorn scheme. The service had found that there were no less than five different councils collecting waste from its 26 fire stations. When the contract was put out to tender and awarded to a single company, there was an immediate cost saving of £5,000 a year. Further savings were made by reducing water consumption. As might be expected with fire stations, efficiency in this area has a significant impact. Due to the changes put in place to achieve Acorn accreditation, to date the service has saved more than £30,000 in water consumption charges through leak reduction and water minimisation schemes.

Promotion of EMS

While the promotion of EMS certification often plays heavily on financial savings and improved organisational performance, at the heart of every initiative lies action on sustainability.

For Stephen Barrett, partner in the business at the Spar convenience store in Millisle, Northern Ireland, the primary motivation was concern for the environment and a belief that it is incumbent on every business to do its bit. He became aware of Acorn due to the Sustainable Together through Environmental Management (STEM) Project. Set up to help nine cross-border councils in Ireland and Northern Ireland, the Southern Group Environmental Health Committee and SMEs in the area to implement and develop EMS, STEM is the largest initiative of its kind in Europe. And it is on the way to bringing 270 organisations to phase three of the Acorn Scheme.

Barrett was keen to formalise the good work already taking place within his business and recognised Acorn registration, financially supported by STEM, as the perfect opportunity. NQA awarded the Spar store with Acorn phase three in April this year. Barrett said: “The process has really helped all in the business to understand and value why sustainability is important. And I now hear about what everyone is doing to be environmentally responsible at home, which is great.”

Catherine Golds is environmental and health & safety business sector manager for NQA

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