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Understanding ISO 14001 Environmental Management Systems

sprout_blogIf your business is looking at getting ISO 14001 certification - an internationally-recognized emblem of environmental stewardship - then you’ve probably already begun looking into implementing an ISO 14001 environmental management system (EMS).

In fact, having a comprehensive EMS in place is an essential step to ISO 14001.

You need an EMS.

While the ISO 14001 guidelines are not directly prescriptive, there are 5 essential elements to any ISO 14001 checklist:

  1. Commitment and Policy
  2. Planning (including goal setting and targets)
  3. Implementation (including staff training, documentation, and communication)
  4. Evaluation (monitor your programs and adjust plans)
  5. Review (including plans, goals, and the EMS itself)

But the true value of an ISO 14001 environmental management system is far greater than the sum of all these parts. They all come together to create the cumulative effect of a continuous improvement cycle. And it’s this cycle that will give you the best long-term rewards.

 ISO 14001 EMS

Image credit: http://www.epa.gov/ems/#iso14001

The continuous improvement cycle works like this: you set goals and create programs for your corporate environmental management. You frequently monitor your progress with these programs and adjust your plans to better meet your targets. At the planned cycle timeline, your top management team and environmental managers meet and review these plans and the EMS, before deciding on any changes that need to be made in order to improve.

And then the cycle begins again, resulting in year after year of business improvement.

In addition, if all your goals are met and the current EMS is working perfectly, the review period should result in the creation of new environmental programs to deal with projects and issues that have not yet been addressed.

This whole ISO 14001 EMS framework is meant to constantly improve upon itself so that your business is always able to make progress. The promise of annual growth and achievement offers a lot of benefits, if you commit your entire organization to the process.

An ISO 14001 Environmental Management System is People Powered

Of course, this commitment also carries with it a lot of responsibility. It is the cornerstone of any good EMS. There’s a reason why it’s the first step in the ISO 14001 checklist. And that commitment requires participation from your entire company, from the top down, for life. If you aren’t committed to every step of the continuous improvement cycle, it simply stops and all those long-term benefits vanish.

Typically, however, when a business has decided to pursue ISO standards, it has already committed internally to the process.

You could say that commitment is the engine that drives the entire continuous improvement cycle forward. It takes commitment to develop environmental strategies, stick to them, and then do the (often) tedious work of evaluating, reviewing, and adjusting them. When you’re just starting out, it can feel like wading through molasses. But commitment is what will propel you through it.

Committing to the continuous improvement cycle also means that there is no “set it and forget it” mentality allowed. There is no “off the shelf” EMS system or ISO 14001 software that can automatically buy you ISO 14001 certification. That doesn’t mean an EMS solution won’t be a fantastic resource in your journey to ISO 14001, but in the end it will be the people using the EMS and using it to improve and manage your environmental performance that truly earn ISO certification.

An ISO 14001 Environmental Management System is All About You

Creating and managing an ISO 14001 EMS can sometimes seem to be a daunting task.

It’s a constantly-shifting resource, one that should continuously evolve year after year.

The important thing to remember is that you direct what your EMS looks like and where it will go. The ISO 14001 EMS guidelines are remarkably flexible and customizable.

It’s all about implementing an EMS that works for you and meets your needs.


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This post was written by Alex Chamberlain

Alex Chamberlain is a writer for ERA Environmental Management Solutions.

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