Purpose The purpose of this study is to explore the antecedents and effects of environmental management (EM) and its related factors on firm performance from the perspective of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Most previous studies have focused on determining the effects of environmental efforts on environmental performance. This study aims to illustrate that effective EM - along with other factors such as customer emphasis, recognition and capabilities - generates positive firm performance for SMEs. Additionally, the stdy aims to show evidence that EM is worth proactively pursuing rather than being viewed as a burden and being subject to reactive task by SMEs. Design/methodology/approach The authors collected data via a questionnaire from 300 SMEs through a professional research company. They then used the data to assess a model and determine the relationships between the different constructs using structural equation modeling. Findings The results testify to the optimal structure between the study's constructs: customer emphasis on EM, recognition and implementation of EM, capabilities and the performance of SMEs that have implemented EM. The main finding is that EM has a positive relationship to firm performance. Originality/value This study's findings could likely persuade SMEs and policymakers to more proactively engage in EM. It also contributes to offer evidence that customer orientation plays an important role in SMEs' implementation of EM and its impact on firm performance.