IT’S UP TO BUSINESSES TO TACKLE THE GIANT OF CLIMATE CHANGE AND ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION
There is a clear intent on the part of the many businesses (including many labelled as unsustainable) to take the necessary steps to ensure environmental sustainability, and in fact, many companies are already doing incredible work at promoting sustainable business practices. This was the opinion of Gunstons Attorneys director, Garth Watson after returning from the COP17 conference in Durban. It was very refreshing, after listening to many of hours of debate about the complexities of climate change law and policy, to hear the encouraging stories of companies that are just getting on with it with creative solutions to the problem. It could even be argued that the solution to climate change and environmental degradation will be found, to a large extent, at the hands of individuals and the private sector as we collaborate to take responsibility for the challenges facing the global community, particularly in Africa.
With this spirit of generating solutions in mind, Gunstons Attorneys has tied up a strategic partnership with an environmental legal compliance business, The Environmental Law Consultancy (The ELC), one of the oldest firms of its kind in South Africa.
The ELC now operates from offices in the same building as Gunstons? offices in Steenberg Office Park, Tokai and will liaise with and draw closely on the expertise of all Gunstons departments, mostly notably however the commercial, environmental and property divisions.
Grant Gunston, Senior Director at Gunston Attorneys, said that the already-defined intention is to grow The ELC’s business and this, he believes, is relatively straightforward because “there is a huge need for informed and responsible advice on environmental matters generally as well as health and safety law”.
Peter Flynn, Business and Systems Manager, said that the backing of Gunstons Attorneys would enable The ELC to provide new services and technology and to widen the range of products that they offer.
“For example,” he said, “we see a strong need for clients to have competent legal compliance assistance across all areas of their business operations, considering the full spectrum of South African legislation. This is the case especially as new legislation begins to have significant impacts across traditional company verticals.”
The ELC, said Flynn, had been in existence for 20 years and focused on environmental legal compliance in the early years before expanding into occupational health and safety and more recently other areas.
“Our goal has always been to assist any company or organisation whose activities impact on the natural environment. We try to see that they do so in a legally approved, responsible and sustainable manner.” The clients of The ELC have tended to be mines and manufacturing entities such as processing, packaging, canning and bottling plants as well as property developers. Most, he said, already have massive operations in South Africa and are continuing to expand and/or to upgrade. Flynn stated that, “no company is too small for us to help. We have shown that we can be just as useful to every entity.”
The ELC’s clients, added Flynn, tend to have two motives for partnering up with them.
“The first is a genuine desire to avoid harming the planet and/or their work place or community. The second is the growing realisation that the penalties for non-compliance imposed by the state can be onerous in the extreme: they often run into many millions of Rands. For example, a Witbank based materials producer was recently fined R3 million for contravening the National Environmental Air Quality Act. The interesting thing about this case is that in virtually every other way the company was already legally compliant.”
Flynn commented, too, that the proliferation of ‘green’ companies offering specialist advice and services (for example in the retro-fitting of buildings) are themselves often not fully compliant and in fact ignorant of much of South Africa’s environmental legislation.
“The consequence of not taking environmental law advice or taking it through a badly informed source can be serious because, as indicated, the penalties imposed today are draconian.” Watson added that increasingly there are compelling business cases for companies to ensure compliance with environmental laws as well as to go beyond compliance by adopting international best practice management systems and making use of creative new technologies and systems to green their companies. Many companies are well down the road of sustainability, he said.
Trudie Broekmann, Gunstons Attorneys Commercial Law Director, stated that there is a growing need for a ‘one-stop’ legal service to ensure compliance not only with environmental, safety and health matters but, at the same time, with the growing body of other law, for example the Companies Act, the Competition Act and the Consumer Protection Act, where, she said, the penalties for non-compliance can also be very high.