Last reviewed 4 May 2021

Laura King looks at why an environmental policy is needed and how to ensure any existing policies are still fit-for-purpose.

Recent analysis of some of the largest global plastic producing companies found that 64% did not have publicly-reported environmental policies. Given the negative environmental connotations of plastic, this is perhaps surprising.

However, sitting between high-profile raw material companies, such as ExxonMobil, and well-known producers, such as Proctor and Gamble, the sector is largely unseen by the public. Although low visibility may be one explanation for a lack of action, this is likely to change.

With strong public opinion on plastic waste driving legislative policy (consider, for example, the UK’s plastic tax) there will undoubtedly be increased pressure on this middle-man to consider its environmental impact and how this affects their business model.

As a starting point for change, an environmental policy is a key document for any organisation wanting to facilitate environmental improvements in its business. Here, we look at what an environmental policy should include, as well as how to check any existing policy is up to standard.

What is an environmental policy?

An environmental policy outlines the company’s principles with respect to its impact on the environment and sets out its intentions for how the company will control and manage that impact.

The policy forms a cornerstone of any corporate environmental management system, and so will need to exist as a written document. It cannot just be a philosophy or “way of doing things” that is communicated by word of mouth. The statements made in the document also need to be implemented so that the actions of the company are aligned with its words. This means that in writing an environmental policy, resources also need to be assigned to making it happen.

Because of this need for resource, and also because the policy needs to inform decision-making at every level, the top tiers of management should be involved in the creation and approval of the policy.

What are the benefits?

Without an environmental policy, a company does not have a clear steer or direction of travel. It also does not have a defined intention of what it wants to achieve or how to make those ideas a reality. Although a policy in itself will not change anything, if integrated into the organisation and actioned, an environmental policy will provide this direction and confer a number of other benefits.

From a practical perspective, the background work that goes into forming an environmental policy will help identify future risks and highlight where environmental compliance needed. Improved environmental compliance can result in significant benefits to the bottom line, as can cost savings from environmental improvements that make operations more energy- water- or resource-efficient.

It can also act as a good communication tool to inform staff of their own roles and responsibilities as well as demonstrating internally and externally that the organisation takes its corporate citizenship seriously. This is increasingly important for investors, potential customers, as well as employees.

What does a policy need to include?

When starting out, there are a few key questions to ask. This will help make sure that the policy is aligned with the company’s work.

  • What are the main environmental impacts and key environmental issues that apply to the business? Conducting an environmental review as part of the work to create the policy is a good way to answer this question.

  • What are the business’ overarching objectives, and what does it want to achieve?

  • What targets are appropriate and how will these be met?

If taking the effort to write an environmental policy, it is worth aligning it with the requirements for ISO 14001, for which an environmental policy is a fundamental requirement. To conform to ISO 14001, a policy needs to make the following commitments.

  • To protect the environment.

  • To meet all compliance obligations and comply with legislative standards.

  • To continuous improvement.

The policy also needs to be appropriate to the organisation and the environmental impact of that organisation. This means that any policy should tackle the issues that are the most important and pressing for that industry. It should also be ambitious but achievable, with resources committed to its implementation — actions will speak louder than words, so an unrealistic or under-resourced policy is unlikely to be a useful tool for change.

Other elements that the policy might cover include:

  • how the policy will be communicated internally and externally

  • expectations for suppliers

  • any training that employees will be given on the policy and their roles and responsibilities.

Tips for writing an environmental policy

An environmental policy needs to provide a high-level summary in a way that is easy to understand and can be easily digested.

  • Use language everyone can understand — the document is meant for everyone, so steer away from highly technical language.

  • Make it easy to read by keeping it succinct and using clear formatting with headings.

  • Put it on the website — this will mean that it can be seen by any interested stakeholders. Publishing the document also helps keep the company more accountable.

  • Get it signed off — ideally the document should be approved by the highest level of management (for example, the board of directors) and signed off by a director/senior manager who sits on that board.

Is any existing policy up-to-date?

If a policy is out-of-date or inconsistent with the company’s actions it might be assumed that the company is not fully on-board with making environmental improvements. Even if actions are being taken, a policy will often be the face of the company’s environmental ambition and so it needs to be up to standard.

A good rule of thumb is to review the policy annually — it does not necessarily need to be changed, but it should be looked at.

At the most basic level, it is worth checking that the policy meets the basic requirements.

  • Does the policy exist as a document, and is it clear which version is current?

  • Is the policy publicly available?

  • Does it include commitments to environmental protection, to fulfil compliance obligations and continuous improvement?

  • Were senior managers involved in its creation?

  • Do employees know about the policy and how it impacts on their day-to-day work?

  • Are the targets and objectives still relevant?

Understanding the history of policy creation is also useful. Ideally, it would have been created after a review of environmental impacts — this can be re-visited to check it still reflects company operations. If there have been improvements or changes then another review might be needed.

To capture a full representation of how the policy is functioning in practice, employees at all levels of organisation could be involved in the policy review. This has the potential to provide useful insights into how well the company is communicating its environmental ambition, how it is meeting its stated objectives, as well as insights into how processes could be improved.

Finally, for any policy to be effective it needs to be in alignment with the broader goals and mission of the company. This means that the policy needs to sit well with the overall strategic direction of the business and so needs to be looked at with these in mind.

Summary

An environmental policy is a living document that sets out the organisation’s environmental principles and objectives. It needs to:

  • be clear and easy to read

  • well communicated internally and externally

  • include commitments to protect the environment, meet legal obligations and continuous improvement

  • be based on an environmental review

  • be relevant to the organisation and the context within which it operates

  • be approved and signed off by senior management

  • be reviewed annually.