ISO 14001: A new dawn?

ISO 14001 has been revised. This has stimulated supporters and critics of the environmental management system standard to comment extensively on the revision, and for the debate on the benefits of implementing the standard to be resurrected. BSI Management Systems Global Marketing Manager for Sustainability, Nick Marshall clarifies the finer points of the revision and outlines some of the benefits of ISO 14001 certification.

ISO 14001 is the world’s leading environmental management system standard. The original standard was published in 1996 by the International Standards Organisation (ISO), growing out of the BS7750 standard created by BSI, and it has shown impressive growth in the number of organisations certified to it globally, now standing at about 75,000 certificates. ISO 14001 provides a robust framework for the management of environmental risk within organisations and certification demonstrates strong process management of environmental aspects and impacts.

Going through changes

The standard has now been revised and was re-issued in December 2004. The updated ISO 14001:2004 standard, it is fair to say, is not a vastly altered document from the original. The revision has focused on clarification of the first edition and developing enhanced compatibility with the quality management systems standard, ISO 9001:2000. This enables better alignment of management systems within organisations, in that environmental risks may be integrated into the core business management system, without compartmentalising them.

Many specific clauses have been altered and added to, such as those dealing with the scope of operation and evaluation of legal compliance, and there is a greater emphasis on external communication. New definitions have appeared in the standard, which draw mainly from ISO 9001:2000, but deal mainly in semantics. There is the important requirement for organisations to transfer their certification from the old standard to the new, and this is expected to occur within an 18 month timescale from the start of 2005. This means organisations should be considering implementing the changes to their management systems now.

In short, the changes will require organisations to update their systems in line with the new standard, but there are no radical departures. There is nothing in the revision to really make environmental managers quake in their boots. There is, however, enough ammunition to re-ignite the debate on the value of implementing an environmental management system and the true benefits of certification.

Delivering environmental management

There has been an increasingly vocal group of critics casting doubt on the benefits of implementing an ISO 14001 environmental management system (EMS). The criticisms have centred on the perceived argument that there is no tangible evidence that implementation of an EMS actually drives through environmental performance and reduces the incidence of the transgression of environmental legislation. The critics would argue that an organisation with a certified EMS is as likely to fall foul of the regulators as an organisation without certification.

Needless to say, BSI Management Systems does not share in this view. We feel that the criticism of the standard and its implementation and certification is the product of a poorly researched contemporary field of management. Fifteen years ago, environmental management was not on the radar screens of most organisations. If one compares the environmental field with that of quality management for example, it is clear to see that, owing to the longevity and popularity of the latter, there is considerably more, and better quality, research work available.

This may appear a relatively weak argument, but on closer study of some of the research, the inability to link the implementation of an EMS with improved environmental performance is founded on a short-term assessment of company performance. Most studies conclude that there is not enough evidence to identify a determinable link with performance, but they do not conclude that such a link does not in fact exist.

The conclusions seem to reveal that more research is required, and over a longer period of time. There has certainly been some direct correlation in certain sectors, such as the pulp and paper sector, where a strong link between the adoption of an EMS and improved environmental performance has been established (SPRU, 2004). Nonetheless, there still exists a paucity of evidence suggesting that companies with a certified EMS perform better than those without, in the majority of studies.

England’s Environment Agency (EA) has used these conclusions as a basis to prevent the usage of risk-based regulatory practices, suggesting that, “sites with EMSs don’t necessarily deliver better compliance with permit conditions, have fewer incidents or better general environmental performance than those that do not have them.” The EA has called for, “third party certification schemes to focus on legal compliance and improvements in environmental performance when they review sites’ performance.” This essentially means that if you are adopting an EMS, your organisation cannot expect any regulatory relief in the form of reduced audits.

Taking it further

More recently, though, matters have come into a sharper focus, as the REMAS study is starting to show preliminary results. REMAS is a 3-year project designed to examine EMSs currently in place in business and industry across EU Member States. REMAS aims to demonstrate that companies and organisations that implement EMSs show better environmental performance overall. A recent REMAS report has revealed, “strong evidence that an accredited environmental management system leads to an overall improvement in site systems and procedures.” This is perhaps not the silver bullet linking EMS implementation with performance, but it is certainly a start and the project still has some way to go.

For BSI’s part, we have been involved in the certification of many leading organisations’ EMSs, indeed BSI Management Systems is the UK’s leading ISO 14001 certification body. Whilst the academic debate continues, BSI has client managers assessing businesses, day in day out, from a wide variety of industry sectors. This experience has led us to conclude that there are many common benefits from implementing and certifying an EMS in organisations.

These benefits range from the enhancement of environmental awareness in the organisation, to cost savings and reduction in resource usage and improved compliance with legislation. Marry these with the added value of demonstrating environmental commitment to stakeholders and leveraging competitive advantage in the market place, and you have a powerful set of drivers for achieving certification. Many of these benefits have been quantified in a number of real-life case studies.

What has become evidently clear is that there is a need for more empirical study in this still relatively new field of management. The revision of ISO 14001 was necessary to bring it into line with the ISO 9001 quality management system standard, but there a no major differences in the spirit of the standard. BSI Management Systems is confident that there are significant, tangible benefits to organisations achieving certification to ISO 14001, which we are able to observe on a daily basis. What remains is the simple task of translating this into the world of academic study; which is no mean feat!

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