CBI bids to revive environment forum

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) is making a fresh attempt to encourage companies to join its Environment Business Forum (EBF). Membership has reached barely a quarter of the initial target, weakening the CBI's credibility in arguing that voluntary initiatives by business can be more effective than environmental regulations and taxes.

The EBF was launched at the end of 1991. Companies must meet eight criteria to join. These include the publication of an environmental policy, setting of targets and publication of objectives for achieving the policy, and reporting publicly every twelve months on their progress (ENDS Report 203, p 4).

In 1991, 5,000 firms were invited to join the Forum, and the CBI said it would be disappointed if 500 did not sign up. It also set itself a target of 1,000 members by 1994. Neither target has remotely been met. The CBI said in March that the Forum now has 250 full members. Its latest membership list, published in mid-January, named only 212 organisations. Of these, at least 50 would qualify only for associate membership because they are trade associations or environmental business clubs, or are not businesses at all. Among the latter group are local authorities, educational establishments and environmental groups, as well as the Dutch Embassy.

At an EBF meeting in London on 15 March, John Cridland, the CBI's Director of Environmental Affairs, said that the Forum would have been 1,000-strong by now but for the requirement on companies to publish environmental reports. Without that requirement "our initiative simply wouldn't have been credible, either with the Government or the public."

The message was underscored by the Director General of the CBI, Howard Davies. A voluntary initiative, such as the EBF, he said, "immeasurably strengthens the moral authority that you have when you are dealing with the Government...Indeed, the success of the CBI's other modes of operation - lobbying against additional rigidities and competitive handicaps in the form of environmental legislation - hinges on our ability to point to examples of voluntary action and its positive effect."

Environmental reporting, Mr Davies said, "is proving to be the Achilles heel" of the EBF - yet it was "absolutely essential" to its credibility. The CBI is aiming to encourage firms to grasp the nettle with a set of guidelines on environmental reporting, to be published in June.

For the moment, though, the "moral authority" carried by the Forum cannot be said to be great. About 100 members have submitted environmental reports or, according to Mr Cridland, "have given us a legitimate reason why that can't be done." Delays have been allowed, he explained, in cases where companies are restructuring or changing their product lines, or have been bought out.

The CBI itself has not analysed the environmental reports, possibly because its three-strong Environmental Management Unit, which promoted the EBF, was disbanded last year. But Mr Cridland commented that "the reports we've received tend to be more qualitative than quantitative."

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