Getting and staying compliant with environmental laws

According to a recently reported study by consultancy Trucost, there is almost no difference in the size of fines handed down to large firms versus their smaller counterparts.

The implications of these findings are clear: you may be a small business, but if something goes wrong and you're prosecuted for an environmental offence, your smaller stature won't mean you get off lightly. Likewise, bigger firms won't necessarily be fined more.

According to the Trucost study, the average fine was £9,500 for both large firms and SMEs.

Whilst this may be affordable for larger businesses, it could be very damaging to the cashflow of an SME.

"Businesses of all sizes should really consider conducting yearly compliance audits, identifying the legislation that they need to comply with, checking to ensure that they are, identifying any gaps and developing action plans to close them," said Rachael Haywood, environmental advisor at Remsol. "This way, there shouldn't be any surprises and the threat of prosecution will be greatly diminished."

So, where should you look first?

Well, until you know what legislation applies to your business, you can't possibly know whether or not you currently comply with it, so a good starting point is to think about what it is you do and where there are obvious interactions with the environment - and a chance that, if something goes wrong, harm could occur - and then look for legislation that applies to those activities.

However, this can be quite a lengthy process, especially if you're not familiar with environmental legislation and where to find associated guidance.

So, another approach is to look at the environmental offences that are prosecuted most often, identify the relevant laws and then check to see if any of your business activities could be captured by these rules. Commonly prosecuted offences are for: unlawful discharges of pollutants into rivers and streams; failures to comply with the Duty of Care for waste by sending waste to unlicensed sites or using hauliers that aren't appropriately registered as waste carriers; and packaging waste offences.

Compliance auditing needn't be overly complex or expensive. There is lots of accessible guidance on environmental compliance provided by the Environment Agency and on the www.gov.uk website.

However, a practiced eye can also make the process easier and quicker. Of course, prosecution and fines are only one part of the story: getting it badly wrong can have disastrous consequences for your reputation, which SMEs naturally have to work even harder to gain.