UK: Where to draw the green line. (1 of 2)

UK: Where to draw the green line. (1 of 2) - Can British industry be criticised for not living up to its environmental responsibilities when clear, universally agreed targets are still lacking on many issues? Tom Lester examines the issues.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Can British industry be criticised for not living up to its environmental responsibilities when clear, universally agreed targets are still lacking on many issues? Tom Lester examines the issues.

Whether you consider industrialists to be the unprincipled rapists of Mother Earth or see environmentalists as idealistic nutcases, there is little question that opinion and judgement, even prejudice, are at the heart of the environmental issue, at least as it confronts managers. Global warming or any of the thousand other worries that come under the environmental heading may or may not have a sound scientific basis, but subjective judgement is still required to determine what priority to give them, and what rules, actions and expenditure are justified to relieve them. That in turn poses the question: whose judgement is to be applied - the management's, Whitehall's, Parliament's, the European Commissioners', the pressure groups' or that of the public?

In practice, no group can be excluded from the process. The responsible manager must ensure that his company is greener than green on all of the major issues according to current opinion, demonstrate to the world at large that this is so and, for the future, help form opinions and set the standards for the company's own as well as the common good.

IBM, for example, is currently considering what action, if any, it needs to take about its computers' visual display units. VDUs are suspected by some of causing eye strain, postural problems and even of spreading harmful radiation across the room. IBM could simply ignore the worries, on the grounds that there is little or no scientific evidence to support the complaints. But "all these things are a matter of judgement", thinks David Livermore, IBM's UK director in charge of the environment, "and our intention is to be in the forefront". Its policy is to meet or exceed all applicable regulations, and to set its own standards where no relevant government standards exist. But for that policy to be effective it has to be understood and believed by opinion formers and the world at large, including, of course, potential customers.

With these issues in mind, Management Today commissioned some research into one of the most important UK groups, the MPs, to gauge their opinions on how British industry is living up to its environmental responsibilities. With the Environmental Protection Act just on the statute book, no company can afford to ignore MPs' views. Air pollution and waste disposal were the two issues most in need of further legislation, according to the research.

In all, 71 MPs were questioned in October and November last year, the sample numbers reflecting the party and regional balance. Around 60% of participants believed that laws covering industrial pollutants and effluents, and recycling, were not tough enough, and virtually all thought that industry should place a high priority on cutting pollution and conserving energy. Of the opposition MPs, half considered that British industry was less responsible towards the environment than its main European competitors.

Arguments about who is greener than whom are sterile. The principal concern for companies is first that they should be kept in touch with prevailing opinions on environmental issues that could affect them; second, that any misconceptions on technical or other matters should be corrected. Like many other large companies, ICI now employs a team of executives to handle the environmental issue. Others have hired government relations consultants to help them build communication links with the Government and Whitehall.

It is, perhaps, no surprise that the MPs questioned in the survey believed that industry should place "very high" priority on reducing pollution (84%), conserving energy (73%) and cutting the consumption of scarce resources (48%). But they are not simply pursuing every fashionable preoccupation: 76% thought that in the long term an environmentally responsible company was more profitable, whereas only 12% thought it less. In similar vein, 76% considered that companies should attach a high priority to maximising profits.

As ICI struggles in the current climate to maintain its investment programme it might find the two thoughts sitting uncomfortably together. But the parties' replies reveal a difference in emphasis rather than polarity: the green-is-more-profitable school consisted of all but one of the Labour MPs and two thirds of the Conservatives. The profit prioritisers comprised 86% of the Tories and 58% of Labour.

The corporate concern is therefore that the profit implications of a particular measure are widely understood, and that the legislators are not going to saddle companies struggling for survival with disproportionate costs - or at least, not without the public being made aware of the consequences. As ICI's environmental communications manager, Dr Richard Robson, explains: "A lot of older plant was not designed to operate to current standards."

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