Most still in denial about their environmental impact
Published: 26 August, 2009
BRISTOL: Small construction businesses are waking up to their green responsibilities, with 78% now recycling their waste - an increase of 14% in just two years.
However, the recession now seems to be taking its toll on construction's green business practices, with just one in seven SMEs planning to invest in improving their environmental performance over the next year – the lowest investment of any sector surveyed.
The biennial SME-nvironment survey by environmental guidance website NetRegs.gov.uk reveals that 40% of small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) in construction have introduced practical measures aimed at reducing their environmental impact. Although this remains far below the UK average of 55%, and the lowest of any industrial sector, increases in the number undertaking environmental assessments (up from 11% to 18%) and improving energy efficiencies (16% to 18%) suggest that the sector is making strides in reducing its impact.
But despite government efforts to improve the UK's green business credentials through formal environmental management systems (EMS), NetRegs' study of 7000 SMEs found a 70% drop in the number of construction businesses with such a system in place. 87% argue that an EMS or environmental policy is ‘of no use' to their business, despite evidence from some in the sector that this has reduced operating costs and improved customer relationships.
The number of SMEs able to name a single piece of environmental legislation relevant to their business has also fallen. Most concerning is the small proportion of respondents in construction able to recognise key regulations applicable to their business. Just 31% are aware of Site Waste Management Plans, which became compulsory for all construction projects over £300,000 in England in April 2008 and are widely expected to become law in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland shortly.
And to highlight the gulf between perception and reality of environmental harm, just 6% of construction businesses questioned by NetRegs thought their business undertook activities which harm the environment; the actual figure was far higher, with 38% emitting smoke or fumes to air.
Debbie Chatting, marketing strategy manager at NetRegs.gov.uk, comments: "It's good to see improvement in the construction sector's green business activities, but efforts are clearly starting to fall back in many areas. Our survey has unearthed a level of denial among some businesses who still don't acknowledge the harm that they can do to the environment nor recognise the business opportunity it presents to them. SMEs make up 99% of British business so their cumulative impact is huge; they simply cannot be apathetic or maintain indifference."
Falling awareness levels are a likely by-product of recession-driven cuts. Fewer construction businesses now have a nominated individual with environmental responsibilities or are following an environmental improvement programme, compared with two years ago, suggesting that the environment has slipped down the priority list of the UK's 4.7 million SMEs.
NetRegs is now campaigning for all businesses to nominate a ‘Green Ambassador' responsible for reducing the firm's effect on the environment.
Ms Chatting explains: "Many companies in the supply chain now include specific environmental questions in their tender forms, so by building measures into your business plan, training your staff and taking an environmentally responsible stance throughout your business, you will reap the rewards of winning more work. And you'll comply with the law.
She continues: "NetRegs has developed a simple online self-assessment checklist which is free and can help identify green measures that will save most businesses real cash. In fact businesses that receive NetRegs' free regular updates save around £2,600 a year*. Environment, profit and staff motivation go hand in hand."
SMEs ignore green legislation at their commercial peril. The Environment Agency's most recent Spotlight report revealed that half of all serious industrial pollution incidents are caused by SMEs, with the average environmental fine now exceeding £10 000.
NetRegs.gov.uk is delivered in partnership with the Environment Agency and other regulators to provide free guidance to SMEs on how to comply with environmental legislation. The website explains exactly what businesses need to do to improve their green credentials, avoid fines and save money through greener business practices.