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Environmental management and organisations
Environmental management and organisations

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8 Introducing organisations

Why should you focus on environmental management in organisations? This is a good question. And like any good question, it is often worth spending a few moments to explore your own thinking about the possible answers.

Activity 7 Organisations and the natural environment

Why do you think organisations may be important in terms of the natural environment?


I think the most immediate reason we might want to study environmental management in organisations is because organisations are so numerous. As a result, the potential for organisations to change the way natural environments are managed is very significant in terms of, for example, resource use, energy consumption and production of waste in various forms. Organisations also exist in every corner of the world – from large urban areas and cities to remote polar regions – and in every society. A focus on organisations therefore provides a way to explore environmental management at local, national and global scales. Finally, almost everyone will have some experience of some kind of organisation, which means it is possible to ‘ground’ some of the discussions in your own experiences and contexts.

It is difficult to be precise about the number of organisations in existence. This is because of geographic spread, definitions, overlaps between organisations, legality and the fact that organisations are created and ended every day. Estimates vary widely from around 200 million to more than a billion organisations globally. While in reality the exact number at any one time is – for all practical purposes – almost unknowable, clearly there are many organisations in existence, each with particular roles and functions, and many with particular impacts on their environment.

If we focus on the UK alone, in 2012 there were over 2 million VAT-registered businesses with employees (ONS, 2012a). In 2010, there were over 160 000 voluntary organisations in the UK, with over 760 000 paid employees (NCVO, 2010). Looking at just one sector within the UK that we might expect to have a direct impact on the natural environment, the construction sector has over 250 000 firms of all different sizes employing over 2 million people in many different roles (ONS, 2012b). The precise figures are less important than the overall picture of many different organisations engaged in activities that affect the environment in some way.

So the short answer to the question at the top of this page is that the number of organisations and their combined impacts mean organisations are key to environmental sustainability at many different geographic scales.

But organisations are not static entities. The parts, functions and processes of an organisation can be very dynamic and have highly complex links to natural resources. It follows that the implications for environmental sustainability can be equally complex and often confusing to many observers trying to make sense of an organisation’s environmental impacts.

It is for this reason that the focus of this free course is about how organisations manage their dynamic and complex relationship with their environment. Systems thinking and practices can be particularly useful in helping to make sense of this complexity. But to understand how an organisation engages in environmental management first requires a better understanding of what is meant by ‘organisation’.