Database Services: Companies go for green line: A centre in Reading provides environmental information about more than 700 paper products

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The Independent Online
A LOCAL authority has to choose paper on which to send out its council tax demands. It wants the best environmental option, but not recycled paper, in case an imperfection appears to put a decimal point in the wrong place.

A leading clearing bank wants to buy new fax machines. Again it wants to know which products are'greenest', both in the way they are made and their impact on employees.

Another company has to rush out an announcement to shareholders and needs several tons of paper within 24 hours. It would like environmentally friendly paper, but speed is of the essence.

Requests like these, requiring answers with a mixture of environmental, technical and commercial information, flow in daily to the Environmental Product Information Centre (Epic) in Reading, Berkshire.

The telephone marketing service was launched 18 months ago to respond tothe increasing importance for companies of environmental issues, and to help answer the ever more complicated questions they ask before buying stationery and office equipment.

Epic has pulled all the relevant information together in a powerful database with cross- referencing ability. Trained telephone operators act as an interface between the business customer and information.

'Buyers areon the telephone dealing with issues they are not familiar with,' says Hedda Bird, managing director of Epic. 'The telephone operator often has to make the request coherent.'

Epic's users include a long list of blue-chip companies, such as Boots, British Airways, British Telecom, Glaxo, National Westminster Bank, Marks & Spencer and Safeway, alongside a more predictable group of customers: Body Shop, Greenpeace, Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth.

Information on more than 700 paper and about 40 information technology products is provided by manufacturers and distributors. Most are happy to supply detailed information and pay for inclusion on the database, in the hope this will lead to sales. Manufacturers unwilling to subscribe still have their products logged in the database, but with less detail.

Users access the database free of charge, but they are required to state why they want the information and to allow Epic to pass their name to the subscribers, which can then pitch for sales.

Mrs Bird says commercial buyers are happy with this because they want manufacturers to contact them. This two-way flow of information makes Epic's brand of telephone marketing highly unusual. It would not be possible for consumers, who are shielded by the Data Protection Act.

Although Epic's origins lie in the paper industry - it is partly owned by a paper mill - it is steadily adding new products to its database: a full printer service was put on in July, faxes went live a couple of weeks ago, and photocopiers start next month.

Mrs Bird hopes to generate sufficient interest from manufacturers of personal computers, and extract the relevant information, in time to add these to the database in October.

She is at pains to point out that Epic is not a campaigning group, but a business driven by a desire to make environmental improvements. Change will only come through buyer pressure, she believes, and buyers can only exert that pressure when they have the relevant information at their fingertips.

Increasingly rigorous legislation will force manufacturers and buyers to address environmental issues, Mrs Bird says. Companies can no longer throw away outdated and unwanted computers, for example, but must take responsibility for their disposal. Clauses putting the onus for this on manufacturers are creeping into purchase contracts.

She warns that companies that do not take their responsibility to the environment seriously risk being shunned by insurers, afraid of something nasty turning up in a landfill site several years on.