Environmental compliance laws limit the negative impact businesses have on the air, water, ecosystems and other aspects of the natural world. In addition to industries like manufacturing and construction, environmental regulations are common in many other sectors, from metal fabrication and auto repair to dry cleaning and house painting.

For instance, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists wide-ranging regulatory guidelines including rules for air pollution, land use, pesticides, dangerous substances, spill cleanup, waste management and water quality.

In certain industries, compliance is necessary to avoid fines and sanctions. However, some rules are simply guidelines to help businesses protect the environment and keep from harming people in the course of potentially hazardous operations.

At the same time, environmental compliance can be complex and requires learning different federal, state, and local laws to avoid issues. Here is a closer look at the challenges and benefits of environmental compliance.

Why is environmental compliance important?

Businesses of all sizes can get certain benefits if they comply with environmental rules. These advantages go well beyond avoiding fines and penalties to include things like efficiency improvements and a better public image. Here are some of these advantages.

  • Cost reduction from limiting waste and improving efficiency can have a positive impact on a company’s bottom line. A business may even qualify for special incentives, such as tax breaks for installing renewable energy systems to help meet emissions requirements.
  • Brand recognition could result from environmental friendliness. Customers often view businesses favorably for sustainable practices. Also, investors and potential employees may prefer companies with a positive environmental record.
  • Risk management is another positive. Companies can limit financial and public relations dangers by adopting training, processes and policies to avoid potential compliance issues.
  • Emergency planning is another aspect of compliance. Companies with solid plans can prepare for worst-case scenarios and limit damage from environmental disasters such as fires, chemical spills or other accidents.

Also, large corporations often have their own company policies geared toward sustainability. They may require partners, suppliers and contractors to meet similar standards. Businesses that fail to do so could miss opportunities for partnerships with these firms, while those with their own standards in place may qualify for new opportunities based on their environmental policies.

What are the challenges of maintaining environmental compliance?

Environmental regulations vary by industry. In some sectors, rules may only extend to one area, such as waste disposal. In others, businesses may need to document activities and store compliance data to prove their actions. Laws can further vary by location, with some businesses having to comply with different sets of local, state and federal regulations.

Here are two important areas to consider when ensuring environmental compliance.

Jurisdictional variability

Jurisdictional variability refers to the difference in laws in different geographical areas. For instance, air quality regulations in California are different than they are in Texas. Also, municipalities or counties within the same state may have unique laws for practices such as waste disposal or water conservation.

All businesses have to take the time to understand applicable laws from federal, state, and local authorities. However, the process can be complicated for companies that operate in multiple areas. They may have to manage a different set of compliance requirements for each jurisdiction where they operate.

Data collection

The jurisdictional variability can extend to data collection. Each state may have unique reporting requirements, and they may have rules about collecting and organizing data. These differences can make it impossible to set up a system to automate collection and reporting.

There are few standardized methods for measuring sustainability and verifying compliance. It is often up to companies to collect their own data and prove its validity. In some cases, this could involve installing IoT sensors to measure air quality, creating a cloud-based platform for testing records, and training staff on how to accurately collect and enter data. The expense and complexity of these efforts can present challenges for small and mid-sized businesses.

How can your business ensure environmental compliance?

Companies can adopt strategies that facilitate environmental compliance and address the challenges associated with these laws. In many cases, an organization can expand its efforts to include sustainable business practices that increase efficiency and make it easier to comply with environmental regulations.

Conduct a risk assessment

An environmental risk assessment (ERA) can help a company define areas where its operations could impact the environment and assess processes to see if they meet current legal requirements and standards.

The assessment should always include a list of all operations and locations and specific laws for each place and each activity. The assessment should also include the environmental impacts of processes on land, water, air and ecosystems and any risks associated with these activities. This information helps verify current compliance and build emergency response plans for worst-case scenarios, such as a chemical spill.

Finally, the company can categorize risks, take steps to mitigate those that are within its control and create a system to document all these efforts for reporting.

Provide compliance training

Employees will need to understand their role in the efforts. Before training, the company decision-makers need to create policies and processes that support compliance in each jurisdiction. This framework can inform the training program.

Employees need to learn the practices that affect the location where they work. They typically need to learn the policies and understand the methods for various tasks like waste disposal, chemical management, air quality protection and resource conservation.

Training should also include emergency response practices, role-specific requirements, and proper documentation of compliance-related activities. Finally, the program ends with an assessment to ensure each employee can apply what they learned.

Stay up-to-date on applicable regulations

Environmental compliance rules vary by jurisdiction, but they can also change over time. Governments and governmental agencies regularly enact new laws, altering compliance requirements. These changes may require businesses to amend processes or documentation procedures.

Issues like global warming, energy independence and water conservation are inspiring governments to act. For instance, the EPA recently introduced guidelines to limit the production and use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFC).

It is essential to stay up to date with the latest rules and to make appropriate adjustments. These steps help a company avoid penalties and allow for incremental adjustment rather than having to make major changes with new regulations.

Strive for continuous improvement

A company can strive to improve sustainability and environmental friendliness proactively. In doing so, it can go beyond regulatory requirements to more holistically promote sustainable business practices. This forward-thinking approach also provides a head start on complying with future environmental requirements.

Ongoing improvements can take a number of forms, and a business should consider all available technology tools to maximize benefits. For example, solar panels designed with specialized roof-mount solar software will help a business meet clean energy targets while maximizing return on investment for the energy production. The same tech-informed approach could help reduce energy use during different business processes, reduce waste and limit the use of potentially dangerous substances.

Companies that successfully navigate the challenges of environmental compliance can enjoy many benefits like better efficiency, improved public image and increased ability to meet future regulations.