Ecology: Green firm profiting from pioneer roots: Consultancy says demand for its advice keeps growing

NOT SO long ago, concern for the environment was limited to a few high-profile 'green' companies, such as Body Shop. But today interest has grown to the point where even businesses whose activities do not have an obvious effect on their surroundings feel obliged to examine their environmental practices - and consultancies have sprung up with the aim of helping them.

Environmental Resources Management (ERM) can justifiably claim not to have jumped on this bandwagon, however. The company, which placed 49th last year among Britain's top 100 privately owned companies in the annual survey by the Independent on Sunday and Price Waterhouse, was founded by Florence Fisher in 1971. This was 'the beginning of time, as far as environmental consultancies go', according to Eric Turner, the managing director.

Ms Fisher knew the United Nations was planning a conference on the environment in Stockholm the following year, and she could see a need for information.

The company began as a policy unit advising governments on how to bring environmental concerns into day-to-day management of affairs. From there, it was a small jump to working with companies.

The green issue is described by Mr Turner as - like politics - 'the art of the possible'. However, environmental developments have come thick and fast over recent years and the company has worked hard to keep up with them and be at the forefront of change.

Four years ago, for instance, ERM was strongly involved only in two areas: carrying out studies for the World Bank and other aid organisations that realise there is an environmental element in everything they do; and providing assessments for developments such as power stations and infrastructure projects such as the Channel tunnel. Since then, it has added environmental management services - advising large organisations on how to integrate green issues into policy-making - and environmental auditing, assessing a company's processes against a list of criteria, such as levels of noise and treatment of waste.

BS7750, the quality standard for environmental management systems, is being tested at the moment and a number of businesses are seeking ERM's help. But a more important driver is the Environmental Management and Audit Scheme, an EC regulation soon to be implemented.

Fundamentally, this scheme amounts to an acknowledgement that virtually every company should be concerned about the environment. Chief executives want to ensure its requirements are fulfilled so that they are not sued, while the financial community has started to become aware of the ramifications.

As a result, the growing demand for assistance has kept consultancies going through the recession. And ERM is confident that its expertise and international spread give it an edge. In the UK, it has 180 people split mainly between the London headquarters and Oxford, where an operation was established because many employees were unwilling to suffer London's property prices and smog.

In addition to a number of people in British regional offices, there are 40 in Hong Kong and about 50 spread among eight countries in continental Europe. Last year, turnover totalled pounds 23m, with Hong Kong - where there have been a number of important infrastructure projects recently - contributing pounds 2.5m.

There has also been a US connection since 1986, when ERM - then known as Environmental Resources Limited - stumbled across an American company called ERM. Soon afterwards it started an informal relationship with the organisation, that had grown out of the Superfund, the federally financed scheme responsible for cleaning up contaminated sites.

In June this year the two cemented a deal whereby the US concern accepted the UK company's logo and style of presentation, while the UK company swapped the 'L' at the end of its name for an 'M'.

With the environmental consultancies set to follow other professionals into the former eastern bloc, the newly merged ERM is hopeful that it will be in a good position to gain business.

On the one hand, it can advise governments on what is likely to be an extensive clean-up, and on the other, it can assess future liabilities for those western multinationals now embarking on a spending spree.

Mr Turner attributes the company's success to a realistic approach. 'We're pragmatic,' he said. Instead of telling companies that things cannot be done, the consultancy tries to find 'ways of doing it that are less destructive'.

(Photograph omitted)

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