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Small businesses 'must do more to be energy efficient'

Fiona Harvey,Guardian Sustainable Business
2nd April 2012
Small businesses must do more to make themselves energy and resource efficient, or environmental policies will fail, the the vice president of the European Commission has warned.
His comments follow the first in depth analysis of how smaller companies are affecting climate change and pollution targets.

Fewer than a quarter of European small businesses are "actively engaged" in trying to reduce their environmental impact, with most of those who do opting for energy efficiency measures, according to a new survey from Eurobarometer, the first of its kind. Roughly the same number are offering their customers "green" products or services.

Antonio Tajani, vice president of the European commission, told the Guardian: "It is of huge importance that we bring small businesses forward in promoting green jobs, green products and services and in reducing their environmental impact. We cannot achieve our environmental goals without a strong focus on small and medium-sized companies."

He said the potential opportunities in green markets and in greater efficiency would benefit the EU economy: "[There is] huge untapped potential which will pay off with more innovation, more competitive SMEs [small to medium-sized enterprises] and more jobs."

Small businesses are often described as the backbone of the EU economy, as the 23 million small companies in the region represent 99 per cent of all businesses and provide about 90 million jobs. They are responsible for nearly two thirds of industrial emissions. But in environmental policy, especially climate change, they have frequently been ignored, as the focus of the last decade has been on persuading the largest companies to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

These smaller companies are also at risk of missing out on the burgeoning market for green products and services, including those that are eco-labellled, organically produced or that have a large content of recycled material. In the US, 30 per cent of small businesses boast such green offerings, compared with 26 per cent in the EU. Of those in Europe, most are directed firmly at their national market, and only a handful export outside the bloc.

Tajani said: "Only very few European SMEs extend their green business to foreign markets. Knowing that the EU makes up roughly one third of the world market for environmental industries this reveals a huge potential for SMEs to grow."

But small businesses did say they were taking action to use resources efficiently. More than 60 per cent of those surveyed said they were trying to save energy, minimise their waste or recycle, while about half said they were trying to save water.

Many EU smaller and medium-sized companies are also employing workers for environment-related tasks – in the poll, 37 per cent of small businesses said they had at least one employee in a "green" job, defined as a job related to goods or services that benefit the environment, optimise the use of natural resources, or involve the use of methods and processes that are more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources than the norm. For example, a worker charged with helping to save water through better maintenance, a chemical technician testing air samples to measure pollution from a factory production process, or an operator of renewable energy equipment to produce power for a small company would all be classed as green jobs.

Financial incentives to become more energy efficient were cited as the most important policy measure by about half of respondents, and a quarter wanted more information on how they could become more efficient.

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This story has been published under licence from Guardian Sustainable Business, of which GreenWise is an editorial partner.

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