How to write an environmental policy

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An environmental policy is a written statement, usually signed by senior management, which outlines a business' aims and principles in relation to managing the environmental effects and aspects of its operations. Although putting one in place is voluntary, an increasing number of businesses are choosing to do so.

Having an environmental policy is essential if you want to implement an environmental management standard such as ISO 14001. It's also vital if you currently work or intend to work with large organisations, or if you need to demonstrate to customers and other stakeholders that you are committed to managing your environmental impacts in a responsible way.

This guide sets out the benefits of having an environmental policy. It makes suggestions for selecting the right format and content. It also gives useful tips on how to keep the policy up to date and how to extend its scope to include corporate social responsibility and sustainable development.

The benefits of an environmental policy

An environmental policy forms the foundation of environmental improvements made for your business, as defined by senior management. It sets out key aims and principles.

Having an environmental policy can provide significant benefits to your business. These include:

  • helping you to stay within the law
  • improving information for employees about their environmental roles and responsibilities
  • improving cost control
  • reducing incidents that result in liability
  • conserving raw materials and energy
  • improving your monitoring of environmental impacts
  • improving the efficiency of your processes

However, the benefits are not restricted simply to internal operations. By demonstrating commitment to environmental management, you can develop positive relations with external stakeholders, such as investors, insurers, customers, suppliers, regulators and the local community. This in turn can lead to an improved corporate image and financial benefits, such as increased investment, customer sales and market share.

It's important to bear in mind that these benefits are unlikely to be achieved if you just have an environmental policy in place. If you set up an environmental management system (EMS) this requires you to implement a program to systematically deliver your policy in a strategic way.

External certification of your EMS will help you demonstrate to customers, investors, regulators and other stakeholders that the environmental claims you make in your policy are credible, reliable and have been independently checked.

If you don't choose to set up a formal EMS, it's a good idea to at least apply some of the steps to ensure your policy is effective. This can include assessing the environmental impact of your business, developing appropriate key performance indicators, setting objectives and targets and reviewing these regularly.

Selecting the right format for your environmental policy

There is no standard format for writing an environmental policy, but to give it the best chance of success, it's important you plan it carefully. For your policy to be successful you need to get buy-in from management, by emphasising the key benefits such as cost reduction, improved risk management and marketing.

Once you have secured this commitment, it's a good idea to assess where your business currently stands in terms of environmental management. This could include drawing up an environmental history of your business, its impact and the risks faced by it.

You could also carry out a benchmarking exercise to establish how you compare against similar businesses.

It's important to tailor your environmental policy to reflect your business and its culture. A good starting point is to collect and review examples of policies written by other businesses and select the format and style most appropriate to your own business. However, avoid copying someone else's policy.

There are a few basic rules to follow:

  • keep the statement short - if it's longer than a sheet of 8 ½ X 11, then it's probably too long
  • the statement is meant for everyone to see, so make sure it's easy to read and understand
  • the statement must be realistic, achievable and relevant to your company's activities and practices
  • demonstrate commitment to making the policy work and get the statement signed, dated and endorsed by the owner, managing director or other senior manager
  • make the policy available on your website
  • ask new employees and suppliers to read a copy of the policy

Creating content for an environmental policy

There is no standard content for an environmental policy, although policies normally contain the same themes. Bear in mind that your policy should be personal to your business, and as such reflect the activities, priorities and concerns most relevant to it.

Before you write your policy you should assess which aspects of your business affect the environment and what the potential impacts are. There are a number of techniques that you could use when carrying out the assessment.

The content of your policy should be based on the results of your assessment, which should have identified the key issues that apply to your business.

Your policy should contain brief statements on the following criteria:

  • The business mission and information about its operations. Bear in mind that if your business activities or operations change significantly, the policy may need to be amended.
  • A commitment to continually improve your environmental performance.
  • A commitment to effectively manage your significant environmental impacts.
  • The expectations that your business has in relation to external parties such as suppliers and contractors.
  • Recognition that you will comply with relevant environmental legislation as a minimum level of performance.
  • Education and training of employees in environmental issues and the environmental effects of their activities.
  • Monitoring progress and reviewing environmental performance against targets and objectives on a regular basis (usually annually or in the first six months initially). See the page in this guide on how to keep your environmental policy up to date.
  • A commitment to communicate your business' environmental aims and objectives to all staff, as well as to customers, investors and other external stakeholders.

Additional issues relevant to your business, and which you may wish to address in your environmental policy, could include:

  • transport
  • recycling of packaging materials
  • minimising waste
  • efficient use of water and energy
  • use of biodegradable chemicals
  • minimising use of solvents and lead-based paints
  • use of timber or wood products from sustainable (managed) forests
  • procedures to minimise noise disturbance to neighbours
  • phasing out of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-depleting substances

If your business is linked closely to key customers through the supply chain, obtain a copy of their environmental policy, so that your statements can reflect their requirements and needs.

Your policy should demonstrate commitment by senior management and is usually signed by the chairman or chief executive.

You may want to integrate your environmental policy with other policies on health and safety, quality management, corporate social responsibility or sustainability.

Checklist: good practice for drafting an environmental policy

The checklist below may help you to draft a policy appropriate to your business. Choose examples of the statements that would apply to your business and make the statements as specific as possible for your operations:

  • comply with environmental legislation and other requirements, such as approved codes of practice
  • importance of environmental issues to your business
  • assess the environmental impact of all historic, current and likely future operations
  • continually seek to improve environmental performance, e.g. by doing a regular walk-around survey of your business to see if you are using energy and water efficiently and whether measures to reduce waste and pollution are effective
  • reduce pollution, emissions and waste, e.g. emissions from transport, oil leaks and spills, excessive noise, heat or vibration generated by the activities of your business
  • reduce the use of all raw materials, energy and supplies
  • raise awareness, encourage participation and train employees in environmental matters
  • expect similar environmental standards from all suppliers and contractors
  • assist customers to use products and services in an environmentally sensitive way
  • liaise with the local community
  • participate in discussions about environmental issues
  • communicate environmental aims and objectives to employees and external stakeholders
  • agree to commit to environmental principles and continual improvement at the highest level in your business

Keep your environmental policy up to date

To check that your company's current activities still comply with your environmental policy, it's a good idea to carry out a regular review - usually on an annual basis, or in the first six months initially. These are key to ensuring that there is continual improvement in environmental performance and that more specific environmental targets are set on a yearly basis. Bear in mind that if your business activities or operations change significantly, the policy may need to be amended.

If your policy is not kept up to date, and it is not backed up with some form of environmental improvement (such as a formal environmental management system or less formal program of improvements), other organisations may think that you're not taking your environmental responsibilities seriously. Consequently, they may decide to take their business elsewhere.

Similarly, if your policy says that you are taking your environmental responsibilities seriously but you fail to back this up, you may face questions over the quality of operations in other parts of your business. This could tarnish your reputation with customers and suppliers.

It's a good idea to involve employees in the reviewing process. If employees are expected to deliver on environmental policy commitments, they may be a good source of ideas for improvements. The environmental policy should be available for all new employees to read and to all existing employees if it changes significantly.

Extend the scope of your policy

Your environmental policy doesn't have to exist in isolation. In fact, it can be useful to extend the scope of your policy to cover corporate social responsibility and sustainable development. You could choose to develop this either within a single policy or create separate, linked policies. An extended policy acknowledges the fact that different groups of people rely on your business and outlines how you go about minimising your impact on the environment.

By developing a corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy, you are showing that you are:

  • Dealing with suppliers and employees in a responsible way - for example by being open and honest about your products and services and avoiding pressure selling. It also means going beyond the legal minimum when dealing with employees and promoting best practice.
  • Building up a good relationship with the local community - for example by supporting a local charity or sponsoring a local event.
  • Minimising your impact on the environment and cutting pollution and waste – by using energy efficiency measures, e.g. switching off lights, reducing the use of water. You could also consider minimising waste and reducing the environmental impact of your business generally, e.g. buying locally to cut fuel costs.

Equally, you can show that you take sustainable development seriously by:

  • considering the life cycle of your products and services and designing them to be as sustainable as possible
  • buying materials and resources that come from renewable sources
  • reusing or recycling your waste, or passing it on to other businesses to use as a resource
  • going beyond your legal obligations and anticipating changes so that you can make adjustments before legislation comes into force
  • involving employees and other stakeholders in sustainable development -by involving them in training and incentives to encourage buy-in to your strategy

Original document, How to write an environmental policy, © Crown copyright 2009
Source: Business Link UK (now GOV.UK/Business)
Adapted for Québec by Info entrepreneurs

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