The winner takes it all?

With the existence of so many environmental awards and accolades, how can potential entrants determine their true value? Graham Sprigg finds out.

Over 300 awards are now being run in the UK for environment and environmentally related subjects. These range from the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, to the Whitley Award for People and the Environment. There are local, regional and national awards, recognition for individuals, groups and organisations, public and private sector awards, broad-based awards and focused, issue driven prizes. With so many awards available to UK business, how can we be sure that they still offer the same impact? Do environmental awards still recognise genuine achievement of best practice? Which will give entrants any real credibility? With a little help from the RSA, award organisers, entrants and sponsors will soon be able to choose the pick of the bunch.

Environmental and sustainable development issues are now permanently on business and government agendas – an interest that is both increasingly matched and driven by greater levels of awareness in all walks of society. Similar growth has also been witnessed in recent years in the extensive array of NGOs and pressure groups, which now campaign for environmental improvements.

Impact of awards

As far back as 1999 the DETR commented that too much diversity “can blunt the impact of awards and leads to varying coverage and quality” in its white paper: A Better Quality of Life, which set out the government’s sustainable development strategy for the UK. When the report was published in May 1999 it was estimated that around 50 environmental award schemes were in place. It is now known that today there are more than 300 – listed by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce – better known as the RSA – on its searchable on-line environmental awards database (

There are undoubtedly environmental awards now in place in the UK that are well known, well established and generate high levels of publicity in pursuit of their goals. For example, Business in the Community’s Awards for Sustainable Development (with HRH The Prince of Wales as its President since 1987), and the Shell Better Britain Campaign, which has been supporting community action for the environment in the UK for the last 30 years. Perhaps the best known of all are the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise awarded to British industry – first launched in 1965 and which include an award for sustainable development.

High-profile individuals or companies whose names are well known both in the UK and overseas offer unique opportunities to capitalise and build on already high profiles. But what about some of the lesser-known, more esoteric awards- where sometimes it is not easy to see an immediate connection with environmental issues, or indeed identify any resulting benefits the scheme might conceivably bring?

Better practice

Award schemes can undoubtedly be highly effective in stimulating better practice and innovation, in encouraging people and organisations to perform better and in bringing those involved in the provision of high quality products and services to the attention of a wide public. However, while some are very well recognised by a large public and attract high quality entrants, others are barely noticed and simply fall by the wayside. Does the existence of a plethora of schemes in the UK simply reflect the ongoing explosion of interest in environmental and sustainable development issues – or will the apparently bewildering array of schemes now on offer simply confuse and ultimately ‘turn-off’ their intended audiences – organisers, sponsors, applicants and wider public alike? Given the current situation, how can potential sponsors, organisers or applicants make an informed choice about the type of award they want to be involved in, which will genuinely meet their objectives and be of real and lasting benefit to the environment?

Simply discouraging diversity of approach will not necessarily improve the situation. What is needed is a mechanism, which enables sponsors, organisers and entrants to identify, assess and evaluate award schemes in an informed and systematic way.

In June 2001, IEM reported how “..the standing of the RSA as an effective, independent round table, suggests that RSA rating and accreditation shouldn’t be far off”. Indeed the RSA has recently put forward the idea of accreditation for environmental awards – a scheme under which awards organisers would pay to have their award independently evaluated, assessed and accredited.

The purpose of such a scheme would be to improve the design, operation and efficacy of award schemes. Recognition will be given to schemes, which meet the standards of organisation and operation set out by the RSA Guide to Good Practice, Organising and Sponsoring Environmental and Sustainable Development Awards.

Dr John Bowman, awards forum executive committee member and RSA fellow, comments: “A wide variety of people, including sponsors, award scheme managers and entrants consider that it would be beneficial to have an accreditation system to identify those award schemes which meet the main elements of good practice… This is what the new accreditation scheme will do”.

Source of information

Few organisations, if any have the independence and ability to gather such a diverse range of people, organisations and expertise together. Margaret Beckett recognised this in her letter to the director in 2002, commenting that she “looks to the Forum to continue to provide an expert source of information and advice to those businesses who wish to participate in awards or those organisations who might be thinking of creating a new award scheme”. The RSA environment awards forum will lead the development and execution of the scheme.

Award organisers who opt to have their programmes independently accredited by the RSA will offer their schemes up for consideration by a team of three auditors chosen from members of the RSA awards forum steering committee and independent specialists, many of whom will be fellows of the RSA. An appointed forum executive will assess the auditor’s report and decide whether accreditation can go ahead. Should a scheme’s application fail to reach the standards required, the reasons for failure will be communicated to the organisers. Scheme organisers can then make alterations to the scheme and re-apply or they may wish to appeal against the original decision. Accreditation recognition will be granted for a period of three years, after which a scheme will be required to be re-audited.

Recognised standard

Scheme organisers, sponsors and entrants are set to benefit from accreditation schemes. By offering a scheme, which has reached a recognised standard, organisers and sponsors are likely to attract a higher number and quality of entrants and raise the profile of the scheme. The schemes, which have achieved accredited status will be marked as such on the database and will be allowed to use a logo on all their literature.

The entrants themselves will have a more informed idea of which award schemes are legitimate, well-managed and carry the prestige that entrants would hope to gain by advertising their achievement.

In the future, RSA accredited schemes will be the only schemes eligible to provide entrants for consideration for the European Environment Awards. With the accreditation scheme already being piloted in the UK by organisers such as the Green Apple awards, Arena Network and the UK Water Efficiency awards, it is likely that accredited schemes will be eligible to act as feeders to the European Awards for the environment by 2004.

The RSA’s scheme is set to form the basis for the minimum standard for UK award schemes hoping to progress to Europe – this is perhaps the biggest incentive to accreditation for award organisers who want to stand out from the crowd.

Dr Malcolm Aickin, chairman the Environment Council, RSA fellow and member of the of the awards forum, comments: “The important thing about environment and sustainable development awards is that they should recognise excellence and innovation and that they should act as a lever for ‘best’ practice… by encouraging others to emulate the excellence of the winners and …by encouraging innovation in order to obtain the recognition of an award.

“The success of an award scheme can therefore be measured in three ways. The amount of benefit that a winner receives, for most this is commercial benefit as a result of winning. The number of others who seek to emulate the winner’s achievement. And the number of entrants who have deliberately targeted new developments at an award scheme.

“Features that encourage these behaviours are difficult to build into an award scheme. An accreditation scheme and its associated guidelines for performance will assist in spreading best practice amongst award schemes and to new awards. This is important if awards are to realise their full potential in the quest for sustainable development”.

Commercial benefits

The commercial benefits that the winner of an environmental award is likely to receive, as a result of winning, can be substantial. Public recognition of the awarded product or service coupled with the internal improvement in employee performance and morale can lead to financial reward. The initial publicity of the awards ceremony is often enough to generate press coverage, elevate levels of interest and lead to sales. This success is however, often short-lived. It is not practical or sufficient to assume the media will provide free publicity for a winner after the glitzy ceremony, and more attention is often paid to what the celebrity or well-respected presenter of the award has to say rather than the winner and their achievements. What is important is that the achievements of the winner are made known over a prolonged period.

By winning an accredited award, that is an award which has met the criteria set by the RSA, the public can be guaranteed the winner is being commended as a result of their genuine commitment to environmental and sustainability issues and reached the criteria which have been assessed, evaluated and approved by independent specialists. The innovation in best practice that the winner has displayed can be adopted by other individuals and organisations to be applied in other fields of endeavour and commerce. By carrying the accreditation ‘stamp’ on their literature, award schemes will offer to entrants a legitimate tool for boosting the profile of their organisation.

Those award schemes who invest resources in supporting and organising awards, hope their investment will be worthwhile. By offering their schemes up for assessment and accreditation, organisers can be confident that the investments made will be recognised. For the entrants, visibility of the quality and standing of the schemes will guide them towards the most desirable recognition of their achievement. With the potential commercial benefits, the giving of high quality environmental awards will continue to encourage commerce and industry to engage in sustainable development as a means of delivering better business and protecting the environment.

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