How small businesses can manage their impact on the environment

There’s too much focus on the footprint of large businesses on the environment, leaving small businesses out. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

Understanding how businesses engage in environmental management is important given growing global concerns about the depletion of natural resources and reductions in biodiversity. There has been a great deal of focus on large businesses, but small businesses have a role to play too. The fact that small business are neglecting this is of great concern.

Businesses have been criticised for their contribution to the destruction of the natural environment. Many have responded by adapting their management practices, production processes and products. But they still face a number of challenges in reducing their impact on the environment.

One way in which they have responded has been by implementing environmental management systems. But in South Africa the uptake of systems like the ISO 14001 certification is low. Only 929 small and large businesses are certified.

Small businesses operate differently and face disparate challenges compared with large businesses. They therefore act differently in implementing environmental management systems.

What’s available

A far more formal approach is being adopted by most businesses. This is usually done by adopting an environmental management system. These have become an essential part of the activities of businesses. They are used to guide environmental planning and implementing standards.

Environmental management systems have evolved into an integrated, formalised, coordinated process. They include a collection of internal policies, assessments, plans and implementation actions to reduce the impact of a business on the environment.

A clear, uniform definition for environmental management still eludes researchers. But there is now more consistency in the steps businesses are taking to develop environmental management systems. There are five: an environmental policy, environmental planning, implementing and operating the management system, checking and taking corrective actions, and a management review.

There are considerable differences in the types of environmental management systems businesses implement. In addition there are systems suited to the needs of specific businesses. Some of the options available are:

None of these frameworks constitute an ideal model for any business. Each one needs to be adapted to specific circumstances, taking into consideration the internal capabilities of a business and its external pressures.

Why small businesses are different

Small businesses lack knowledge of their environmental impacts. They are also culturally disposed to resisting government intervention. This makes them less likely to implement an environmental management system.

And the fact that small businesses are owner managed means that they put more emphasis on personal choice and attitude when it comes to managing their environmental impact. The lack of resources might also play a deciding role in the choices they make.

Previous research on what influences small businesses when they implement environmental management systems revealed a number of external and internal factors. These included stakeholder pressures and psychological factors like attitudes and norms, as well as size and resource constraints.

What small businesses can do

To see what small businesses can do to implement an environmental management system, we conducted a study among 417 small businesses. (This was part of research for a PhD and has not been published yet.) Only 91 (21.8%) had implemented an environmental management system. And 326 (78.2%) had not implemented one at all.

The research found that respondents:

  • had a favourable attitude toward environmental management systems;

  • were aware of environmental issues;

  • perceived themselves and their businesses as able to deal with the barriers to environmental management system implementation;

  • felt personally obligated to reduce their business’ environmental impact; and

  • perceived actions aimed at reducing their businesses’ environmental impact as socially desirable.

Why then was the implementation rate so low?

Barriers to implementation included resource constraints, misconceptions about environmental management systems, implementation concerns, and a lack of support and guidance.

Steps that can be taken to improve the situation

The following strategies could improve the implementation of environmental management systems in South Africa.

First, there needs to be greater awareness of environmental issues among small business owners.

Also, the positive business outcomes need to be reinforced. And the fact that there is a personal and social responsibility to reduce environmental impact.

Steps must be taken to ensure that small businesses are able to adapt to the requirements of implementing an environmental management system. This should include providing them with resources and incentives.

Finally, environmental management systems must be created that require fewer resources and are simpler to implement.

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