SMEs still uninformed on environmental pitfalls

Most small businesses remain unaware of their environmental obligations. Less than one in ten have heard of the environmental agencies’ NetRegs website, which offers advice on their legal obligations.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are more aware of the environmental threats their activities pose, but still have a long way to go, according to a survey carried out for the NetRegs website.

The survey shows just 15% of the 4,490 SMEs questioned realised that their activities were a potential threat.1 But once the respondents were given a list of potentially harmful activities – including storing oil or chemicals and producing or importing packaging – the figure rose to 49%.

Less than a quarter could name a piece of environmental legislation and only 15% had an environmental management system in place. Legislative knowledge and environmental activity were particularly poor among firms with less than nine employees.

On a more positive note, 48% of respondents had adopted measures to protect the environment, the most common being a recycling programme. Some 40% had an environmental policy – but only half of these were in the form of a separate written statement.

NetRegs was founded in 2002 as a free advisory service on environmental regulation for SMEs. It is run by a partnership including the Environment Agency in England and Wales, SEPA in Scotland and the Environment and Heritage Service in Northern Ireland.

The survey, compiled by Atkins, follows similar ones in 2003 and 2005. Overall, the results show an improvement, albeit from a low baseline (see figure).

) “Although the figures are still fairly low on an absolute basis, some have changed very significantly since last time,” said the Environment Agency’s NetRegs programme manager Richard Martin. “I think we can take heart from that and say the environment is going up SMEs’ priority list.”

But how much of the awakening shown in the survey can be credited to the service is open to question, with only 7% of respondent’s recognising its name. This was a mystery to Mr Martin, who said the number of users had increased by a third over the past year.

The Federation of Small Businesses believes its members are willing to put environmental measures in place but are overwhelmed by the disparate array of advice coming from government. Spokesman Simon Briault complained that “there are more than 3,000 organisations providing advice to SMEs”, including varying degrees of environmental information. “What we want to see is a unified, co-ordinated effort from government.”

The survey shows that SMEs see councils, waste firms and the Environment Agency as the main providers of environmental information and have also sought it from consultants, professional organisations and trade bodies.

Mr Briault also thinks the government is missing a trick in not making more of the efficiency gains environmental measures can bring: “We need to see sustained publicity from organisations like NetRegs to advertise these savings.” At the moment, two thirds of the firms taking action say they are motivated by a general concern for the environment and a third by the need to comply with legislation. Just 13% thought there were cost savings to be made.

Mr Martin, however, thinks the website’s emphasis on regulatory compliance is correct, given the devastating effect fines can have on smaller firms. He points to the Agency’s recent Spotlight report (see pp 15-16  ) which shows SMEs were responsible for 43% of the serious industrial pollution incidents in England and Wales in 2006 and earned themselves average fines of £14,500.

But when it comes to creating a more co-ordinated front, Mr Martin admits there is work to do: “Everywhere they look, SMEs get a different picture.” Most groups are supportive, but a few trade associations see NetRegs as competition and local authorities were unwilling to get involved in the NetRegs steering group, he said.

Mr Martin would also like to work with larger companies to persuade them to communicate with their supply chain but said the Agency lacked the resources.

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