Dutch push SMEs up the agenda

Report recommends "positive actions" to improve small companies environmental performance

The EU should focus more on improving the environmental performance of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), according to a report commissioned by the Dutch environment ministry. Prepared by consultancy KPMG, the report will form the basis of a discussion on SMEs and the environment at an informal meeting of EU environment ministers later this month.

SMEs are environmentally significant in a number of sectors, the report says. These include manufacturing of metal articles, electrical and electronic engineering, and textiles, leather and paper manufacturing. A range of actions have already been taken to improve their environmental performance. But more "positive actions" as well as "changes in attitude" on the part of governments are needed.

The Dutch government has indicated that improving SMEs' environmental performance is a priority of its six-month term as EU president. Its slogan is "think small first!" The presidency will use the KPMG report and the informal Environment Council to try to get a political commitment to develop policies tailored to SMEs.

The report reviews EU experience in encouraging manufacturing companies with 20-100 employees to follow environmental rules and reduce their environmental impacts. It says that SMEs "generally appear to respond better to direct external pressures, such as legislation". But it concludes that they face "genuine and practical difficulties" in complying with environmental legislation, which is often aimed first and foremost at larger companies.

In order to help SMEs deal better with their environmental problems, the report recommends that all government actions should aim at simplicity, so that SMEs can cope with them despite their limited financial and human resources. It suggests greater use of "process-based" environmental permits rather than permits based on emissions or technology "in order to target specific sectors and avoid distortion of the market."

The report also suggests greater use of non-legislative approaches, such as voluntary agreements, encouragement of the use of environmental management systems by SMEs, and support for the development of cooperative business networks. In particular, the report recommends "consideration" of the problems for SMEs in achieving and maintaining certification to the EU environmental management and audit scheme (EMAS).

Follow Up:
Dutch environment ministry ; KPMG Environmental Consulting, tel: +31 70 338 2305, KPMG Netherlands . References: "The Environmental Challenge and Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises in Europe".

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