By Graham A. Brown
Environmental management systems have become commonplace in industry, commerce, and government. But do they really work? Some commentators consider the benefits of environmental management systems to be a myth, while others think the results of implementing an environmental management system are magic. Obviously, the real answer lies somewhere in the middle. Why is this?
Environmental management systems only appeared in the early 1990s when the Business Council for Sustainable Development approached the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) with a request to develop an environmental management system standard similar to ISO 9001 (quality management system), which was released by ISO in 1987. While development was underway, British standard BS 7750:1992—Specification for environmental management systems was published. This provided a basis for development of ISO 14001:1996 Environmental management systems—Specification with guidance for use. The history of EMS only spans 20 years, with two revisions of ISO 14001 being released in 2004 and 2015.
About 325,000 ISO 14001 certificates have been issued worldwide, which leads to the assumption that the standard works. This may be true, but there are many reasons why organizations certify to ISO 14001. For some, it’s a prerequisite for doing business; they can’t sell their products to governments or to other purchasers without a certified environmental management system. Others see genuine cost savings from reduced resource consumption, waste, and energy use (the “magic” end of the scale). Some organizations have genuine environmental concerns and see their environmental management system as contributing to a reduced environmental footprint and to their sustainability policies. Some companies use their ISO 14001 certification as a marketing strategy.
There are also many organizations that implement an environmental management system but don’t get certified to ISO 14001 as there is no reason for them to do so, and certification is expensive. It’s not known how many uncertified environmental management systems there are worldwide.
As an environmental auditor, I see every shade of environmental management system development, and much of it is less than satisfactory. Some organizations are required to get ISO 14001 certified by a government or corporate head office but their managers see the environmental management system as a nuisance and a disruption to business. Once the certificate is on the wall, managers often think that’s all they have to do, and the resources needed to further develop, maintain, and continually improve the environmental management system are not made available. A panic before the next audit may maintain their certification, but the environmental management system provides no benefit to the organization. This is all too common.
It’s also all too common to see ISO 14001 certified organizations with a system that doesn’t meet the requirements of the standard and that has not done so for many years. This situation brings the whole certification system into disrepute. This is where environmental management systems enter the “myth” category.
To maintain an effective environmental management system, it’s necessary to have a robust internal auditing program, conducted by trained auditors, that is based on an audit schedule designed to minimize risk and maintain compliance. This provides true benefit to an organization, contributes to its due diligence, and identifies environmental issues before they become critical.
An independent third-party (external) or certification body auditor should assess the effectiveness of the internal audit program and test whether it’s being conducted in accordance with the organization’s procedures; are they doing what they say they will do? In a surprising number of cases, this doesn’t happen. Sometimes the procedures are outdated and are under existing conditions that cannot be followed due to changes in personnel or other circumstances.
ISO 14001:2015 includes new requirements that are expected to benefit the organization, including:
- Top management is now required to have greater involvement in and accountability for the environmental management system.
- The requirements of the environmental management system are to be integrated into the organization’s business processes.
- The policy and objectives are to be aligned with the strategic direction of the organization.
There is now a requirement to identify risks and opportunities (not just risks), assess the effect these may have on environmental performance and the organization’s ability to achieve the intended outcomes of the EMS, and how the organization plans to address these issues. Risk extends to the effect the environment may have on the organization, such as climate change, extreme weather events, sea level rise, forest fires, floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis. The organization is required to take a lifecycle perspective into consideration when addressing its risks and opportunities, as well as the views of interested parties, which influences the scope of the environmental management system. These are only a few of the important changes in ISO 14001:2015.
Environmental management systems have evolved considerably over the last 20 years based on an international standard that has been revised to meet changing expectations and circumstances. ISO 14001:2015 is expected to be in force until the mid-2020s, providing a 10-year window of opportunity for organizations to establish an effective EMS that can add value to their operations and positively affect the bottom line. To achieve this, an effective internal and external auditing regime will be required, which should be based on ISO 19011:2011 Guidelines for auditing management systems.
About the Author
Graham A. Brown is the principal of Graham A Brown & Associates, a consultancy based in Newcastle, NSW Australia. www.grahamabrown.com.au.
Brown, M.Sc. FAusIMM, FEIANZ, CPEA, conducted the first environmental audit in Australia in 1975. Since then he has undertaken several hundred mandatory and voluntary environmental, quality, occupational health and safety, and community relations audits internationally. He is certified by Exemplar Global as a Lead Environmental Auditor and a Principal OHS Auditor; by BEAC (USA) as a Certified Professional Environmental Auditor; by the IEMA (UK) as a Principal Environmental Auditor; by the Clean Energy Regulator (Australia) as a Greenhouse and Energy Auditor; and as a Lead Auditor under the International Cyanide Management Code. He is the author of the EMS Guidebook and the Environmental Audit Guidebook, both published by Thomson Reuters in loose-leaf format and updated every six months.