Environmental Communication Standard on the Horizon
by Susan L.K. Briggs
Is your organization holding an open house, issuing an environmental or sustainability report or responding to requests for information on environmental risks? Is it contemplating expansion of its operations, choosing the site of a new facility or introducing a new product?
If the answer is yes, has the need arisen to discuss possible actions with community members, interested parties or customers? Perhaps your organization has been faced with reporting incidents to the media, answering complaints from neighbors or responding to challenges by activist groups?
Over the past two decades, communication on environmental values, actions and performance has become an essential activity of organizations.
Information and explanations about the environmental implications of operations and other environmental issues often must be provided. In addition, senior managers have recognized a growing need to consider the views and concerns of interested parties in their decision making process. They have learned that proactively communicating environmental information can raise awareness, influence perceptions and build trust, credibility and partnerships.
For these reasons, guidance on the fine art of environmental communication has been addressed by the International Organization for Stan-dardization (ISO). Its draft international standard (DIS), ISO/DIS 14063, Environmental Management—Environ-mental Communications—Guidelines and Examples, outlines recommendations on general principles, strategy and activities related to both internal and external communications.
The standard offers proven, well-established approaches that have been adapted to the unique conditions typical of environmental communications. These approaches can be tailored to each organization, the target audience and the specific topic being discussed, and can be readily integrated into organizational business processes.
Although the standard is still in draft stage, I recently had the opportunity to talk to two of the U.S. experts who are participating in the ISO technical committee 207 working group responsible for writing it. The following insights of John Shoaff and Gretchen Hund provide a brief overview of the status, content and potential uses for the standard.
Q. What’s the status of the standard?
A. ISO just closed on a ballot seeking approval to elevate this DIS to the next stage, a final draft international standard. The results have not been published, but the United States voted positively, as most of the other member bodies are expected to do. The final editorial comments can be ironed out at our next international meeting in September. Assuming all goes well, the document can undergo its final ballot and be issued as an international standard in the spring of 2006.
Q. What are some of the unique features of the draft standard?
A. The first distinguishing feature is that the standard is broader than environmental reporting. A variety of programs govern reporting, such as the voluntary Global Reporting Initiative1 and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Toxics Release Inventory..2 We wanted to complement these programs by providing a framework to communicate and effectively engage stakeholders on issues either of interest to an organization or of concern to a community group.
Another feature is the wide range of communication activities described. Whether an organization wants to proactively share environmental performance information, notify the public of an emergency or react to externally initiated communiqués from customers with concerns about its products, the draft standard describes an array of available options.
Lastly, and perhaps the most important feature for users, the document is a great reference manual for implementers. It is full of practical help boxes, examples and case studies. A list of factors to consider and questions to answer before developing a communication activity is provided in each major section.
Q. How does the standard work?
A. In terms of structure, this draft standard mirrors the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) format of other standards, but it is more akin to a planning document than to a management system. First, it defines a set of principles that are the essential underpinnings to any environmental communication—transparency, appropriateness, credibility, responsiveness and clarity.
The standard then guides an organization on how to express its intentions via an environmental communication policy and how to achieve those policy commitments by establishing and implementing a communication strategy.
The strategy entails first setting objectives, identifying interested parties and allocating resources. Then, once established, the strategy drives the development and conduct of specific communication activities.
The draft standard provides an array of both written and verbal communication techniques (including pros and cons for each), which an organization can tailor to meet its needs. Consistent with the PDCA model, guidance is also provided on ways to seek and respond to feedback from the targeted groups and evaluate the effectiveness of the communication activity.
As in other management system standards,
the draft recommends periodic management review and revision of the organization’s
communication processes for purposes of improvement. Figure 1 illustrates the interrelationships
and flow of the various components.
Q. How might facilities, corporations or government entities use the standard?
A. Three facts related to the standard’s use are important, but they should not detract from the document’s value or use:
- First and foremost, the environmental communication standard is applicable to all organizations regardless of their size, type, location, structure or operations.
- Organizations need not have an environmental management system (EMS) to use this guidance. It certainly can be used in conjunction with an EMS, but an EMS is not a prerequisite.
- It is not a certification standard, nor is it intended to establish any additional EMS conformity requirements.
The standard can be an effective guide to augment an organization’s existing programs and bridge a number of disparate activities. For instance:
- It is vital to a facility and its relationship to a community to plan in advance the notifications necessary in the event of an emergency.
- Information on proper product use and disposal is developed and communicated to customers as stewardship expectations rise.
- Management communicate to staff their responsibility, authority and accountability for pollution prevention and regulatory compliance.
- Attention to environmental, social and financial reporting at the corporate level is increasing in response to external scrutiny.
Planning, resource allocation and overall effectiveness of these and other communiqués can be improved by addressing them as part of an integrated environmental communication strategy.
Regarding use in government agencies, Shoaff could only speculate. He says the EPA has a number of voluntary partnership programs that, in essence, embrace various forms of environmental communications. Just as other facilities and corporations do, government entities may benefit from using the tools described in the standard when communicating with neighboring community members about potential environmental issues associated with operations.
Sharing information and engaging stakeholders may yield insight into their concerns, preferences and needs that, in turn, can help dispel myths and enhance confidence and support while bolstering an organization’s reputation as well as its bottom line.
On the subject of the bottom line, Hund points out there are costs of not communicating, and these costs can be greater than designing and implementing a communications program upfront to solicit feedback. Furthermore, she explains an organization can view interested party feedback as free consulting to help it identify pressing issues that can impact its operations.
Q. What’s its nexus with the EMS and QMS standards?
A. There are a number of synergies and opportunities to integrate this guidance document with other management systems. While its genesis is more closely tied to the ISO 14001 EMS standard, there is also linkage to the ISO 9001 quality management system (QMS) standard.
An organization seeking to implement or improve an EMS can use the guidance to develop processes for conveying its environmental policy, communicating internally on its EMS requirements or responding to inquiries by external interested parties on significant environmental aspects.
It is also useful to manage communications beyond those required by ISO 14001, such as reporting environmental performance results. Organizations with a QMS can use the guidance generically to guide their internal and customer communications. In either case, ISO/DIS 14063 supplements these formal management systems by providing some added tools, guidance and considerations.
Q. Is there linkage to social responsibility?
A. Several examples are provided where the draft standard incorporates tenets of corporate social responsibility (CSR), according to Hund. An organization is encouraged to consider itself a partner with society and to take environmental expectations of interested parties seriously.
The draft standard recognizes the benefit to an organization and society if they each have the opportunity to learn from the other. Trust and credibility can be built and maintained if an organization’s environmental communication program builds long-lasting relationships with the community and media.
ISO/DIS 14063 provides guidance for establishing such a communication program and gives examples of organizations that have successfully achieved positive results. It also emphasizes the need for an organization to train staff members in communications so they can be more effective in developing proactive and constructive dialogue with interested parties.
Instilling the importance of such thorough training is one way for an organization to develop a culture of openness, individual responsibility and participation—also tenets of CSR.
Q. What would you like to see next with the standard?
A. Shoaff said, “I would hope it becomes a useful tool for organizations in need of guidance to either communicate with or engage stakeholders on environmental issues.” He explained that too often it seems facilities and neighbors or producers and customers are portrayed as suspicious of one another when, in fact, they are vital to each other’s survival.
“If this standard can help rewrite some of these stereotypes through increased dialogue, information sharing, performance improvements and ultimately trust, I think we could call it a success,” Shoaff concluded.
The author thanks John Shoaff, who is from EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics and is the U.S. chair in negotiating the environmental communication standard, and Gretchen Hund, who is with the Pacific Northwest Nation-al Laboratory, author of A Communications Guide for Sustainable Development: How Interested Parties Become Partners (Battelle Press, 2004) and also a U.S. expert. The views expressed are the respondents’ own and do not represent the views of EPA, the U.S. government or the Battelle Memorial Institute.
- Global Reporting Initiative, www.globalreporting.org.
- Environmental Protection Agency Toxics Release Inventory, www.epa.gov/tri.
SUSAN L.K. BRIGGS is deputy manager, corporate environment, safety, health and quality, for the Battelle Memorial Institute, Columbus, OH. She holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and statistics from Harvard University. Briggs is a U.S. expert on the ISO technical committee 207, subcommittee 1, working groups revising ISO 14001 and ISO 14004. She is a member of ASQ and an ASQ certified quality engineer, quality auditor and quality manager.