1.5 Walking the walk
by Mason Baker
In the current climate of widespread environmental awareness, a lot of companies are paying lip service to sustainable issues, but they're not always taking clear, practical and verifiable steps to deliver real change. In this article, Mason Baker from the London Environment Centre, (the organisation behind the widely acclaimed 'Green Mark' scheme), looks at some of the tangible steps organisations can take to demonstrate they really mean business.
In the past, good levels of environmental performance have been achieved by some more enlightened organisations simply through efficient operation. These organisations have a reduced environmental impact by using fewer resources and generating less waste, in turn creating better performance and increased profit.
Today, many companies are seeing the additional benefits of “being seen to be green”. This means that as well as the potential for greater efficiency leading to greater profitability, there are also clear marketing advantages in meeting the 'green' aspirations of customers, or the environmental requirements of a modern supply-chain. Developing new or modified products can also generate new business from customers looking for products with strong environmental credentials.
This rise in environmental awareness is in most respects very positive, however, there can be inconsistencies between how organisations promote themselves as environmentally responsible, and the actual steps taken to reduce environmental impact.
As an absolute minimum, any business wanting to demonstrate good environmental practice needs to ensure legal compliance with the environmental legislation that affects its activities, operations and processes. If you wish to research the legislation that is likely to affect your organisation, the Environment Agency's NetRegs website is a good place to start.
Beyond legal requirements there are four of key areas where all organisations generate an impact and where there will be opportunities to reduce these impacts. They are: waste, energy, transport and procurement.
All organisations will produce waste and there are numerous opportunities to make improvements in this area. There is a widely recognised waste hierarchy that is helpful in understanding preferable options with regard to waste generation and its disposal.
The waste hierarchy, in order of reduced environmental impact, is as follows:
prevent, reduce or minimise waste production
reuse waste wherever possible
recover the energy in waste
(eg. recycling, composting, incineration)
waste disposal if none of the above options
Devising ways to apply the principles of the waste hierarchy to an organisation's operations and processes can make a significant contribution to reducing environmental impacts. Implementing the initiatives can lead to reduced raw material consumption and resource use, and the reduction of indirectly associated impacts, such as transportation, as a result of reduced waste production, handling and disposal.
As with waste generation, all businesses and organisations use energy. Reducing consumption and using energy more efficiently is the most effective way to make a contribution and reduce the impacts of your organisation.
There are a number of opportunities to invest in technologies that help contribute to increased energy efficiency, for example, changing conventional bulbs for energy efficient alternatives.
Green electricity tariffs have come under scrutiny for exactly how green they are. If you wish to switch your business to a green energy supply it is worth researching the tariffs that are available as what they provide can vary greatly and in some cases may not create the environmental benefits they claim. The preferable tariffs are those that source electricity directly from 100% renewable sources, in other words, for every 1kW of electricity that you use, 1kW of electricity from renewable sources will go to the national grid. The National Consumer Council and Energy Watch have both produced good assessments of the green electricity market and the tariffs that are available. Currently there is a lot of debate surrounding energy use and carbon offsetting. Offsetting is achieved though making financial contributions to schemes such as forest plantation, green technologies or initiatives in the developing world. The intention is that these positive contributions help 'neutralise' the damage caused by carbon emissions, but they are considered by some to be an excuse for a business to do little or nothing to reduce its impacts. There are also some grey areas in monitoring and calculating exactly how much carbon is emitted and the activities that should be considered suitable for offsetting.
Ideally, offsetting should only be an option for a business once all steps have been taken to reduce carbon emissions in relevant impact areas. If offsetting is implemented, an organisation should be explicit in exactly what has been offset (eg. electricity use or transport use, etc) and the methods used to monitor and calculate the associated emissions.
Transport has major environmental impacts and can lead to reductions in local and regional air quality, which in turn can cause harm to the environment and human health. Transport is also a major source of CO2. In the first instance, organisations should consider ways to reduce the need for business travel and utilise technologies such as video or teleconferencing. If travel cannot be avoided give preference to public transport. Additional initiatives range from selecting venues for events that have good public transport links and promoting these links to the attendees, to selecting bicycle couriers.
Addressing the purchasing and procurement decisions made by your organisation can make a significant contribution towards reducing indirect environmental impacts. However, for this to be effective cost cannot be the only driver. In some situations the environmentally preferable alternative may be more expensive.
Asking your suppliers to send you their environmental policy is a good place to start. Beyond that developing a supplier questionnaire that takes into account environmental considerations and creating procurement policies that outline the levels of environmental performance required from a particular product, service or supplier can deliver real benefits. By demanding these improvements care for the environment can be integrated throughout the supply chain, in-turn delivering competitive advantage and meeting the needs of today's more enlightened customers.
Employees and stakeholders
Strong employee participation is essential if environmental initiatives are going to be successful within any type of organisation. Employee awareness of new systems and procedures will need to be raised and the reasons for change will need to be communicated successfully. Establishing new and improved external communication strategies will let key stakeholders know the changes being made and the steps you are taking to address and improve environmental performance. However, it is important to ensure that claims can be backed-up. Independent verification is very important in this respect.
A clear and concise environmental policy will act as a guide to environmental improvement. The policy should identify your key impacts and list the steps taken to minimise these. It can also include future targets and aspirations with regards to further performance improvements. All environmental policies should contain a statement that commits to compliance with environmental legislation, a commitment to prevent pollution and have the backing of senior management. They should also be reviewed at least annually, with the last review date made clearly visible.
Verification is becoming increasingly important for any business wishing to promote itself as being environmentally responsible, allowing organisations to reinforce their message through the opinion of external, independent experts. Obtaining confirmation that your organisation operates as it claims is invaluable in terms of proving to your clients and stakeholders your real performance against recognised benchmarks. It is only by doing this that you really show that you are 'walking the walk', not just adding to our planet's growing volume of hot air!