Companies make progress in sustainability
The issue of sustainability has gained ground in companies in Switzerland. A study by the Federal Office for the Environment reveals that large companies are open to sustainability-related measures, while SMEs need more support. Good examples like the Swiss Youth Hostels Association, the cement producer Holcim or the company for sanitary technology Geberit, can help.
By Anna Birkenmeier, 21.12.2016
In mid-November, the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) published a study on the environmental targets of companies. The study examined the 500 largest companies in Switzerland as well as small and medium-sized companies that issue reports with sustainability targets. The goal was to find out which environmental targets are published by Swiss companies, which issues are covered in them and how they are formulated.
Environmental targets can be a success factor
“The first positive finding from the study is that environmental target setting is an issue for Swiss companies and that they are aware of their climate, environmental and social responsibility", says Project Manager Véronique Ruppert Schmitt of the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), which commissioned the study. 88 of the large companies in the study publish their environmental targets - among them the cement producer Holcim or the company for sanitary technology Geberit. The study also shows that the way the environmental targets are formulated can be a strategic success factor. This is especially true when they are relevant, measurable and focused on impact, such as trying to reduce electricity consumption by a set amount by a specific deadline, for example. Fortunately, many of the formulated targets meet these criteria. However, the targets still primarily deal with the part of the value chain that companies can directly influence and less with the entire value chain. In that regard, Ruppert Schmitt thinks that there is some room for catching up.
A systematic approach is necessary
How can the study’s findings be put to optimum use? “The study shows that the FOEN is addressing issues that are relevant to companies", says Claus-Heinrich Daub of the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW), one of the study’s three authors. In addition, a "systematic" approach may be required for sustainable economies. Ideally, these are relevant, measurable and impact-focused environmental targets that are incorporated into a company’s target setting process. “Thanks to our findings, we can delve deeper into this important issue and work with our partners on investigating voluntary supportive measures for companies", explains Ruppert Schmitt.
SMEs need more support
Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are also increasingly recognising that a systematic concern for environmental and social issues can yield economic advantages. However, the study clearly shows that large companies are way ahead of SMEs in formulating and implementing their environmental targets. One of the major reasons for this is SMEs’ comparatively limited resources. “Reaching small and medium-sized companies is actually a critical issue. We found out that there are relatively few small companies that put forth efforts in that direction", says Daub. One main reason that Daub hears repeatedly: “The issue is too costly or time-consuming and doesn't benefit us." This group must now be more intensively targeted.
Christine Roth, Environmental Policy Manager at Swissmem, an engineering industry association, agrees with this: “The support must be tailored as much as possible to each company. They must be introduced to this issue with accessible and simple guidelines. They must be shown concrete examples of how it also benefits them economically”. However, she also thinks that the situation of SMEs is not really so bad: “Those that are doing something are doing quite a lot”. Therefore, there is great potential with SMEs.
Expand the range of consulting offers
In Roth’s opinion, the FOEN can take on a supportive role in developing this potential. The question here is whether the focus should be placed on regulatory or voluntarily measures. Although the study shows that management at larger companies is open to government regulations and clearly expressed in surveys that it was in favour of ecological tax reforms, incentive taxes or stricter laws and regulations, the voluntary approach seems to be more promising at this time. This is particularly the case because SMEs are decidedly against new rules. For that reason, the study's recommendations also focus on voluntary measures. For instance, it specifically suggests expanding the range of consulting offers for companies. The Federal Office for the Environment already supports a network of corporate resource-efficiency consultants with www.reffnet.ch, which SMEs can also use.
Good examples help
One key task is to create the foundations on which companies can develop a better understanding. Another is to offer practical support. Seta Thakur, Director of öbu, an association promoting sustainable economies, emphasizes this: “Companies need concrete targets. The FOEN can help raise awareness of this”.
In that regard, Christine Roth thinks that ongoing communication and awareness-raising efforts are important in this issue. In addition, all measures, such as promoting consulting offers, workshops and publications, should be specifically geared to meet the needs of SMEs. For that matter, the study provides several approaches to “good practices” from companies of different sizes.
In Thakurs' experience, such examples are definitely a success factor in efforts to convince companies: “Good examples have a highly motivational effect on companies that are not yet ready. It is very helpful to see how others deal with the same problem-solving challenges".
The study does not indicate whether voluntarily set targets will actually change anything. Nevertheless, political and economic experts believe that voluntary participation by companies is decisive in bringing the cause of sustainability to the next level.