25 years of EMAS

“Between Economic Recovery and the European Green Deal – Pathways for Corporate Sustainability Management” Conference

25 years ago, the EU established the voluntary environmental management instrument EMAS. The goal was to provide companies and other organisations with a tool to continuously improve their environmental performance and report transparently. On the 25th anniversary, many EMAS-registered organisations all over Europe celebrated on this occasion and shared their EMAS success stories on Twitter and Facebook #ecoflagship #EMAS.

A specific event was organised under the German EU Council Presidency. The conference “Between Economic Recovery and the European Green Deal – Pathways for Corporate Sustainability Management”, organised by the German Federal Environment Ministry on 29 September 2020 convened more than 230 participants from all over Europe online.

European policy makers as well company representatives, members of the science community and civil society representatives discussed on four panels strategies and practical ideas on how businesses can embrace sustainability matters such as climate mitigation and the protection of human rights in their entire value chain. All speakers agreed that sustainable business practices are much needed to achieve the European Green Deal and tackle the COVID-induced economic slump.

The current crisis as a driver for the socio-ecological transformation of the economy

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven many companies to transform their business model towards sustainability, noted Nadine-Lan Hönighaus, Managing Director of econsense, a sustainability-related company network based in Germany. According to Ms. Hönighaus, this trend is not only urgently needed for both the environment and society – especially in the face of climate change – but also offers economic advantages for sustainable businesses on the capital market, as investors increasingly seek resilient, future-proof business models. The validation of sustainable business practices requires a common language on the European level – EMAS offers this in the environmental field.

Gabriele Wende, Director of Environment and Responsibility at UPM, a paper producer with many EMAS-registered sites in Europe, said UPM's transformation towards a bio-economy began long before the pandemic. The company is also committed to the further development of EMAS. The company is leading by example and has expanded the environmental statement to include social aspects.

Increasing climate management requirements

The demands on companies and other organisations for climate neutrality are increasing. Christoph Töpfer, policy and research officer at the Federal Environment Agency, stated that EMAS provides the basis for establishing the requirements of a credible climate management. In his view, this would enable companies to make an effective and credible contribution to climate protection.

Hidden emissions in the supply chain

One emerging topic for companies is sustainable supply chain management. Hilke Patzwall, Sustainability Manager at VAUDE, an outdoor company, declared that – looking back at ten years of climate balancing – two-thirds of their emissions come from the supply chain. These types of emissions are in a more remote sphere of influence for companies. But as they constitute a major proportion of their emissions, EMAS registered organisations should find ways to also get their partners in the supply chain to commit to environmental management and a continuous improvement of their environmental impact.

Annette Schmidt-Räntsch from the German Federal Environment Ministry believes that more policy intervention on global supply chains is necessary in this area and confirmed that there will eventually be a supply chain law. Lia Polotzek of BUND emphasised that such a law should provide for sanctions in case of non-compliance.

Outlook: more EMAS registrations needed

Concluding the event, Kęstutis Sadauskas, Director for Circular Economy and Green Growth at the European Commission, emphasised that the number of EMAS registrations needs to increase to have a greater impact on climate protection. According to Mr. Sadauskas, this holds true in particular for companies in the energy, agriculture and industry sectors, as these are responsible for most of the emissions in the EU.