The project goal has been to develop knowledge of the transitions Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) has to go through to be prepared for environmental demands in the future. At least 90% of all businesses in Norway are SMEs, and as the national environmental authorities mainly focuses on the large industrial companies, there is much need for this knowledge.
During the "Green SMEs" project we have applied several different approaches in the work with the enterprises. In two companies a detailed mapping of energy- and material usage was performed. The enterprises were then given suggestions of how to become more efficient in their usage of energy and raw materials. There was a focus on technical improvements that in addition to have environmental benefits, would imply cost savings, and in that sense it was inspired by a pollution prevention pays (3P) approach as developed by Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) in improving industrial metabolism. In a third enterprise a different method was used. This consisted of building up elements of an environmental management system. The approach implied that the main focus was on the internal routines necessary to ensure quality assurance as a prerequisite for successful environmental management. The work with these three companies constitutes what is called Phase I of the project.
In phase II of the project a more focused approach was used. A move towards viewing the enterprise as a function of its surrounding environment was taken. The focus shifted towards the demands coming from outside the factory walls. The internal working environment was still regarded as important, but the main emphasis was on the relationship between the enterprise and its surroundings. Industrial Ecology (IE ) is one example of such a demand from the outside. The other from the surroundings in this context are (among others) customer demands, supplier demands, pressure from environmentalist groups, government regulations, banks and insurance companies. In order to be able to identify the most important environmental demands that individual SME has to meet, a quick first audit is performed followed by a report where themes for further work are suggested. Depending on the response from the company management on the suggestions, further work with the enterprise was performed.
The different approach used for phase II of the project was chosen on the basis of the experiences with the different methods used in phase I. The extensive mapping of internal company issues, such as energy- and raw material usage, can give many small improvements for the environment. The experience with the enterprises in this project is, however, that there are other issues than those that can be identified during a detailed technical audit, that are the most important for the environmental performance of the SME. The environmental impact of the individual firm is strongly determined by what type of product-chain the enterprise is a part of. Most of the SMEs are tightly connected with other companies which make up a production network. This must be viewed as a whole to assess the environmental demands on the individual enterprises. The more holistic approach which IE represents is useful in this respect, because it is not limited to improving the environmental performance of the individual SME.
The principles of IE can serve as a useful framework for corporate environmental strategy forming, and for identifying environmental challenges that SMEs can meet in the future. It can also function as a guiding tool to identify environmental problems of particular relevance for rural enterprises, such as the inability to participate in efficient industrial materials recycling systems. Several environmental aspects of manufacturing relevant for SMEs are, however, not usually dealt with within the framework of IE. This is especially true for the transportation reduction necessary to attain a society based on sustainable consumption.
The transition towards the high level of recycling that the IE represents is rather problematic when we consider the environmental effects from the transport aspects of the rural SMEs. The most critical environmental issues for rural SMEs are not emissions from the individual industrial facility, but rather the external challenges facing the businesses. The environmental effects of usage and disposal of the products, the distribution of raw materials and products, and the production chains the firms are parts of, are becoming increasingly important for the rural SMEs.