Environmental communication between theory and practice

Read time: 6 mins

In the last 15 years, European firms and public bodies have been more and more invited to invest in communication activity, in order to prevent conflicts and guarantee access to environmental information for citizens. The sixth European environmental program (1600/2002 EC) considers “the improvement of collaboration and partnership with organizations, a strategic approach for environmental goals achievements” and defines “voluntary-based commitments an essential element”. The European Commission developed EMAS (Eco-Management and Audit Scheme) as an instrument for companies and public bodies to “evaluate and improve their environmental performances and provide the public and other interested subjects with pertinent information” (art. 1 CE 761/2001).

In Italy, ISPRA (Institute for environmental protection and research) coordinates monitoring, checking and issuing of environmental integrated authorization (known in Italy as AIA) and the Institute is also in charge of the promotion and dissemination of EMAS regulations.

Vincenzo Parrini – supervisor of the EMAS Section at ISPRA – explains the evolution of the environmental strategy in Europe: “As the European legislation becomes stricter and stricter for companies, the EU has decided to acknowledge and reward those firms who constantly improve their environmental performances. Communication guarantees more transparency, which allows preventing environmental conflicts”.

According to data (Annuario Dati Ambientali 2012), 1515 Italian organizations have already registered to EMAS. Italy is then one of the most represented countries, together with Spain and Germany.

Based on the Environmental Management System ISO14001, EMAS promotes the image of the registered organizations and provides advantage in competitiveness. The Environmental statement (known as DA in Italy) provides general information about the organization, its environmental policy and management system; describes environmental impact and goals for continual improvement; testifies environmental performances within the law.

To whom and how do the EMAS-organizations communicate?

V.P. Organizations communicate to citizens and all interested subjects in order to show that their processes are economically and socially sustainable. Communication must be effective and show consideration for the public opinion. Very Important - and paradoxically positive – is the complaints process, since it shows that a communication on environmental themes has been established with the citizens.

What are the advantages for the community? Does EMAS really contribute to reduce the conflicts?

The aim of the registration is communication, but very often organizations – both public and private – do not communicate well enough and, even though curiosity and attention from citizens increased, the community sometimes does not answer.  The Italian territory is full of industries located in the middle of cities. Some cities grew so much, they are now too close to the firms or vice versa. Almost anything happened in the last 30 years and now it is the time to invert this trend. 

Who does issue the EMAS registration and how is the structure organized?

The EMAS Committee (instituted by D.M. 413 in 1995) issues EMAS registrations and his members are representatives of the Environmental, Treasure, Health and Industry Ministries. The Committee remains in office for three years even though often it has taken months before the replacement. This discontinuity affects both the complaints evaluation process and the registrations or renewals issue, creating problems for those organizations willing to participate to tender notices for companies environmentally certified. The lack of funds for education, divulgation and research is also greatly penalizing us: the funds for the Committee reduced to one tenth of the initial amounts.

Who are environmental auditors and how do the environmental controls work?

Since 2014, all environmental auditors answer to Accredia. This body guarantees to citizens the independence and the integrity of the auditors, who issue the Environmental statement (DA) and ensure the observance of the regulations.  The Committee used to supervise and control the auditors, who met once at year altogether, reporting to the Committee about problems and critical situations. These meetings have originated several Committee decisions, which improved the system. We hope we will be able to keep this habit in the future as well.

The Committee should promote EMAS and, by regulations, should publish all the environmental statements by registered associations. Are there any difficulties?

The Committee had the resources for communication in the past, but now there is no more money. Of course, this is a paradox. It is not just about Italy, it is the EU too. Besides the national registries, all data from the EMAS-registered organizations are collected by a european registry that used to include also environmental statements. Publications have been suspended for a while, because of technical issues, but they should restart soon.

Are there links between the Environmental Integrated Authorization (AIA in Italian) and the EMAS for the same organization?

EMAS-organizations benefit from a 3 years prolongation of AIA, since they show to be already active in the continual improvements of their performances. Clearly, if the organization does not communicate enough or fails to reply to complaints or to achieve the goals over a prolonged time, the bonus expires. The Committee can then decide to suspend the EMAS registration. In the opposite case, if the AIA is suspended, EMAS is automatically too.

In some cases, organizations suspend their investments because of AIA delays or the management of some organizations have been committed for trial for environmental crimes. How is it possible to justify that the registration has not been suspended in these cases?

If a project requires an investment for the AIA issue, the organization might carry out the project only once it has obtained the authorization. This circumstance can allow to maintain the status but does not justify a trend inversion.  The commitment to trial for the management could not lead to the certification suspension because the area dedicated to environmental processes could have not been affected. The company capability is to change the system in order to avoid that what happened, even a crime, it is not repeated.

Declared data by companies for the AIA and EMAS issues are sometimes contrasting, but ISPRA - which follows both the processes - seems not to notice.

The Committee secretary often interacts with the IPPC (Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control) for EMAS controls, but much often, the same does not happen for the AIA issue.

Some thinks the EMAS and the certification system in general encourage some kind of green-washing, meaning that some organizations receive benefits and simplifications for an improvement not really perceived by the community. Is it true?

I would say it is not. Who voluntarily register to environmental schemes, ISO or EMAS, is under surveillance from Certification Organizations and/or Environmental auditors, who must verity that the environmental improvements procedures are accomplished. Simplifications and control reductions reward those organizations who commit to communicate, but citizens have no instruments to understand the technical information provided by the Environmental Statements. ISPRA or other bodies should promote knowledge and access to EMAS, but they do not have enough resources for these tasks. Even though right criteria and good legislation for sustainability have been developed, environmental conflicts increase, also supported by the public perception that politics supports economy sustainability (for the industry) to the expenses of the social-environmental sustainability which counts for citizens. Apparently neglected, however, citizenship rights seem to have found a space just in the environmental conflicts.

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