Beyond EMS - The SIGMA Project

Arlo Brady, Senior Advisor with Sd3 Ltd, argues the case for a holistic approach to sustainable development.

Figure 1, The SIGMA Guiding Principles

Figure 1, The SIGMA Guiding Principles

Figure 2, Graphic showing the 13 available tools, designed to provide practical help for some key implementation challenges
The International Standards Organisation (ISO) has issued over 50,000 ISO 14001 certifications in 118 countries. Within the European Union over 4,000 organisations have achieved EMAS certification.

Many large companies have their own proprietary techniques; there is an International standard (ISO), a European standard (EMAS) - even sector specific standards, e.g. the ‘Responsible Care’ initiative of the Chemical Industries Association.

Despite recent criticism, having an effective EMS in place is likely to be of value to your organisation. If used effectively, they will help your company to understand and manage its environmental responsibilities/impacts and from time-to-time they have even been known to save some money. But, because they only focus on one aspect of the triple bottom line – the environment - EMSs do not provide a holistic approach to sustainable development.

In order to make responsible decisions that contribute towards societal goals and result in competitive advantage, senior management teams - coaxed along by government and increasingly active, and in some cases rebellious, stakeholders - are seeking to look beyond the EMS.

Envisaging this trend, three years ago, the UK Department of Trade and Industry, Forum for the Future, the British Standards Institution and AccountAbility joined forces to explore the possibility of producing a set of guidelines that would help business to effectively meet the challenges posed by social, environmental and economic dilemmas, threats and opportunities. The guidelines were designed from the outset to provide guidance rather than prescription and to avoid the ‘checkbox mentality’ that has been the bane of certification systems like ISO 14001.

This collaboration was titled the SIGMA Project, which stands for ‘Sustainability: Integrated Guidelines for Management’. During its development phase the SIGMA Project engaged a diverse range of leading practitioners, companies, thinkers and opinion formers – helping to ensure that the Guidelines are as effective and credible as possible. The Guidelines themselves were piloted by over 15 leading companies, including: BAA, Boots, Vauxhall Motors, British Airways, Marks and Spencer, and public sector organisations, e.g. Durham County Council, Southwark Council. Midway through 2003 the product of this collaboration, the SIGMA Guidelines, was launched.

The Guidelines The Guidelines consist of three key sections: Principles, a Management Framework, and a Toolkit: The SIGMA Guiding Principles are designed to provide organisations with a starting point – a set of fundamental principles that will help them decide what is sustainable behaviour and what is not. The principles are rooted in Forum for the Future’s ‘Five Capitals’ model. This model is designed to help organisations to achieve sustainability by promoting the maintenance and enhancement of five different types of capital – reflecting the overall wealth of the organisation (represented by the interlinked circles in figure 1). This is encircled by the equally important exercise of accountability and transparency.

The Management Framework adds to this by describing a simple four-phase cycle to manage and embed sustainability issues within core organisational processes (see table 1). Simply put, this component of the guidelines is designed to help organisations turn their vision and principles into reality.

Phase Description
Leadership and Vision Define the vision for sustainability and ensure leadership support for it.
Planning Decide what needs to be done to improve performance.
Delivery Improve holistic performance.
Monitor, Review and Report Check that the performance is improving and communicate the results.

Table 1, The SIGMA Management Framework

The SIGMA guidelines are supported by an extensive, freely available toolkit.

Each of the tools has been developed in collaboration with leading organisations in the field. For example the much acclaimed Sustainability Accounting Guide was developed with the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, the Cooperative Bank and Wessex Water.

Integration - The SIGMA difference I can already hear experienced environmental/sustainability practitioners complaining that there are too many guidelines on the market, too many things to manage all at once. Existing management systems and frameworks such as ISO 14001, Investors in People, the ISO 9000 series, OHSAS 18001 and AA1000 Framework are already in use. I agree, but I would also argue that SIGMA’s unique value is that it has built in compatibility with existing systems and was designed to help organisations to build on what they already have in place. My proposition being that while some of these existing systems and frameworks are without doubt useful, they are also restrictive in their ‘single-issue’ outlook. By being compatible with existing systems, SIGMA has the unique potential to harness as yet untapped holistic value.

What difference will it make to the environmental professional? SIGMA offers organisations the ability to approach CSR/Sustainability issues from a holistic perspective. It seats environmental performance in a model – a model with purpose.

From a cynical perspective, the role of the environmental professional has, to date, been to help business meet its regulatory demands, to save a company’s money and to make it feel better about itself. If organisations can be encouraged to make a strong commitment to Sustainable Development the position of an environmental professional will be dramatically strengthened. Rather than being a seen as a ‘loose cog’ within a wider organisational structure – suddenly the environmental professional is seemingly tied into organisational direction and strategy – a constituent part of a machine with a clearly defined purpose.

The future – post SIGMA? The SIGMA guidelines represent an interesting and thought provoking insight into the future of management frameworks in this field, but where does Project SIGMA go from here? The British Standards Institution has convened a technical committee (SDS/1) chaired by Simon Zadek (Chair of Accountability) and Sue Slipman (Chair of the Financial Ombudsman Service) to investigate/direct its translation into a British Standard. Meanwhile, a number of proactive companies are ensuring that key staff are trained in the dynamics of the standard. But it is not just major UK and European companies that are interested, the SIGMA Guidelines have received a great deal of interest from SMEs and global companies, for example, master-classes have recently been run for both, a small family-owned manufacturing company and a group of Japanese executives (translated simultaneously into Japanese).

Considering that the trends that led to the development of SIGMA show no sign of abating, it would perhaps be pertinent to observe that its significance and influence will continue to grow. Perhaps one day the successor to the SIGMA Guidelines will follow the highly successful footsteps of ISO 9001 and ISO14001. If so, first mover advantage will not be insignificant.

To learn more about Project SIGMA or Sd3 Ltd. Email or call Ian Buckland on +44 (0)20 8488 3911.

Sd3 helps organisations to improve their performance and create value by adopting business sustainability practices that integrate economic, environmental and social management.


manufacturing | opinion | planning


Click a keyword to see more stories on that topic, view related news, or find more related items.


You need to be logged in to make a comment. Don't have an account? Set one up right now in seconds!

© Faversham House Group Ltd 2004. edie news articles may be copied or forwarded for individual use only. No other reproduction or distribution is permitted without prior written consent.