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Understanding ISO 14001 Environmental Management Systems

sprout_blogIf your business is looking at getting ISO 14001 certification, which is an internationally-recognized emblem of environmental stewardship, then you’ve probably already begun looking into the structure of ISO 14001 environmental management systems (EMS). That's because having a comprehensive EMS in place is an essential step to achieving ISO 14001 certification.

What is ISO 14001 Environmental Management?

Since part of getting ISO 14001 certified requires having a compliant environmental management system in place, many businesses start by asking "what is an ISO 14001 environmental management system?" The truth is that there's no one answer and ISO doesn't provide an out of the box solution for this question.

Instead, the International Organization for Standardization provides a set of ISO 14001 guidelines that are not directly prescriptive, but instead set out 5 essential criteria that shape a compliant EMS for ISO 14001. 

5 Criteria for ISO 14001 Environmental Management System

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

As you can see from this list, interpretation of an EMS has a lot of room for variation between businesses. Very few businesses will end up creating the same system when going for ISO 14001, and that's very much the point; an ISO EMS is meant to be kept in a continuous state of improvement. Something that works for one business won't work for another, and ISO 14001 is about avoiding cookie-cutter solutions. 

Of course, that also means more work for businesses striving towards ISO 14001 certification. First you need to design or implement a solution that meets these ISO 14001 criteria, and then you need to prove that fact to your auditors. Some businesses opt for an in-house solution, while others use environmental software that is designed specifically along the ISO 14001 guidelines. 

How Does an ISO 14001 Environmental Management System Work?

The true value of an ISO 14001 environmental management system is far greater than the sum of the parts list out above. These 5 criteria 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

An EMS with built-in continuous improvement cycle works like this: first you establish executive commitment to implementing and maintaining your EMS. It must consist of formalized and standardized process with C-level buy in.

Second, you set goals and create programs for your corporate environmental management. These goals are fundamentally up to you and should match your unique strategic goals. We often see businesses who are just starting with EMS set goals like:

  • Establish a baseline measurement for VOCs with the goal of a % reduction over time
  • Reduction in energy consumption
  • Track and report GHGs from a specific facility over the next 12 months

The next step is to 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 (sometimes) 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.

Does ISO 14001 Software Exist?

At this stage in the process, a lot of companies start looking for ISO software - something that will just give them everything they need in a neat and tidy package. But does ISO 14001 EMS software exist? The answer is both yes and no. There are several environmental management software packages available commercially, and many are designed to follow the fundamental principles of ISO 14001 at their core. It's worth noting that none of these are officially endorsed by ISO.

However, any off-the-shelf EMS software will still require you to follow through on all the other criteria for ISO 14001 certification. For example, you still need to set and document goals, review those goals, and adjust your practices. An EMS software will help you track all of your activities, but no software can enforce the human-driven practices required for ISO 14001.

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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 Image credit: mcclanahoochie

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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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