Bureaucratic bungling keeps UK firms waiting for approval.
Few people would unhesitatingly identify Britain as a world leader in the environmental field. Yet it's arguable that, but for a characteristically British piece of bureaucratic bungling, this minority opinion could by now be the received view.
In March 1992 the British Standards Institution published a new standard for environmental management systems. Like the quality standard BS5750, from which it is descended, BS7750 was a world first. It required that an assessment be made of any site's 'significant' environmental impacts, and provided the outline of a system for securing continuous improvement.
A whole raft of British companies immediately showed an interest. The new standard usually offered an improvement on their own internal systems and - besides probably saving them money - would allow them to hold their heads up as environmentally responsible. For some, 7750 promised to be a valuable marketing tool. After that - nothing. Although 7750 had been published as a full standard, BSI immediately launched a pilot study to see how it would work in practice. While the 37 working parties deliberated, companies seeking objective appraisal of their performance against the standard gnashed their teeth. There could be no certification because there was no one to certify the certifiers. Eventually one of the bigger UK certification bodies broke ranks. 'We took the view that a published standard is a published standard,' says Effie Marinos, certification services manager at SGS Yarsley. 'Therefore we offered certification prior to (our own) accreditation.' BVQI, a Dutch-owned organisation, is also 7750 offering certificates in the UK, after obtaining accreditation via the official Dutch standards body.
Both have found takers. One of the few to 'go all the way' with Yarsley was Ferry Pickering, of Hinckley, Leicester. 'In the packaging industry, a lot of attention is being given to waste and recycling. We wanted to make sure our house was in order,' says Philip Slocombe, finance director of Ferry Pickering Sales. BVQI has been working with other UK firms, but it is examining sites as far afield as Korea, Turkey, Brazil and the US. So a strange situation exists: 7750 is a British standard but foreigners are getting approval to that standard while only a handful of British firms have been able to do so. 'And we had the ability to be world leaders,' cries a director of a South London firm which has been hanging on for two years.
Inability to get approval is 'something that has frustrated a lot of people in industry', observes Slocombe. Indeed, recrimination is rife. Some blame the BSI for dragging its feet: possibly to prevent criticisms of the sort that followed 5750 (too bureaucratic for small firms), or because it feared that its certification arm, BSIQA (for Quality Assurance), could approve a company which might later become embroiled in some environmental scandal, causing some of the opprobrium to rub off on itself. Others blame the DTI, or its offspring the National Accreditation Council for Certification Bodies (NACCB), which has the job of vetting the certifiers.
All quite unfair, protests Chris Sheldon, environmental standards manager at BSI - it was always intended that 7750 would be reviewed after 12 months. And by that time it was impossible to ignore the emerging European environmental measurement and audit scheme, EMAS. Britain's pioneering work had a big influence on EMAS, Sheldon argues: it's no coincidence that 'the annexes look remarkably like 7750'. Nevertheless, there were also differences where 7750 'had to be brought into line'.
The good news is that the NACCB expects to be in a position to begin granting accreditations before the year-end. Had a workable system been in place earlier, it might have increased Britain's 21e influence over the design of the international standards. The NACCB's Roger Brockway maintains, on the other hand, that 7750 should never have appeared as a full standard, but as a 'draft for development'. That would have avoided a lot of misunderstanding. As it is, there could be more to come if firms lose their unofficial certification - or if British and Dutch interpretations prove hard to reconcile.