ISO 14001 Hits 10-Year Mark

by Susan L.K. Briggs

It has been 10 years since the ISO 14001 standard on environmental management systems (EMSs) was first published.

ISO 14001 took many years to develop, but since being issued, it has been widely used in both the public and private sectors, exceeding the adoption rate of ISO 9001. State and national programs have been established to assist, recognize and encourage EMS program implementation. The number of ISO 14001 certified organizations is now more than 21,000, with almost 9,000 certificates issued in North America alone.

Organizations that have certified to ISO 14001 attest to multiple benefits:

  • Enhanced environmental awareness/accountability at all levels of the organization.
  • Improved regulatory compliance.
  • Enhanced operational controls and procedures.
  • Reduced environmental footprint in terms of environmental emissions, discharges and waste.
  • Improved internal communications and external partnerships.
  • Continual system improvements resulting from EMS objectives, targets, programs, periodic audits and management reviews.

Myriad supporting standards and guidance documents have been developed in the wake of ISO 14001, including those covering auditing, performance evaluation, life cycle assessment, communication, greenhouse gas emissions and product labeling. The ISO 14001 framework has been the basis for several occupational health and safety management systems such as OHSAS 18001, RC14001 and Z10.

ISO 14001 has been revised once in this 10-year period. Change to the core requirements was limited. The focus instead was on increasing compatibility with ISO 9001 and clarifying language to ease implementation and enhance environmental protection.

But several criticisms will need to be addressed in the next 10 years to ensure ISO 14001 maintains its relevance and continues its growth.

Relevance to Smaller Organizations

ISO 14001 is intended to apply to any type of organization anywhere, regardless of size, or geographical, cultural or social conditions. However, even since the 2004 revision, small business representatives contend the document still does not foster acceptance by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Key findings from a 2005 global survey of 2,500 SMEs and their representatives include the following:

  • Few SMEs operate under formal systems, and most believe their environmental issues are limited and of small scale.
  • ISO 14001 is regarded as generating more paperwork—and cost—without improving productivity.
  • ISO 14001 is viewed by SMEs as synonymous with certification, which can cost more to accomplish than an SME nets in a year.
  • Many small businesses do not believe they have the knowledge or resources to implement an effective EMS unaided.
  • Market incentives from either the public or private sector are insufficient to attract SMEs.
  • Improved compliance is an important benefit of ISO 14001 implementation, even though some national environmental regulatory agencies have dismissed ISO 14001 implementation as a driver.
  • A single integrated standard would be well received by those in the small business market, but some said this could result in costly reworking of existing systems.
  • Alternative approaches, a step-by-step approach to certification for example, have penetrated the SME market, challenging ISO 14001 as the brand of choice.

To address this last issue, work has begun on a new standard, ISO 14005, Environmental Management System—Guide for the Phased Implementation of an Environmental Management System—Including the Use of Environmental Performance Evaluation.

Phased implementation has provided mixed results to date, with few organizations completing the entire cycle. Also, the committee draft of this new document does not address the SME concerns.

ISO 14001 is strong medicine for a small business. To make it more palatable requires ISO 14000 stakeholders to become better ambassadors to SMEs.

Credibility of Certificates

Users of accredited certification are increasingly saying that certified organizations are not delivering expected outputs. These users want verification that an EMS results in improved performance, not just conformance to requirements during a certification audit. Because there is inconsistency in results, users are questioning the value of accredited certification.

To address this concern in late 2005, the ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB) began encouraging an increased focus by both accreditation and certification bodies on the outputs (results) of certified organizations during EMS audits.

In particular, ANAB called for auditors to focus on information regarding the trends of environmental performance, legal compliance, pollution prevention and continual system improvement. When the information indicates no improvement or, even worse, a negative trend, the audit team should determine what the client is doing to identify why its management system is failing.

ANAB is not stopping there. It is looking further at what it can do to increase stakeholder confidence and maintain the credibility of an ISO 14001 certificate. For example, the underlying competitiveness of the
certification industry can drive auditors to cut audit durations. This can give one auditor an advantage over others who conform to the Interna-tional Accreditation Forum guidance.

ANAB also noted that organizations view nonconformances (NCRs) as negative and therefore exert pressure on auditors to minimize the number of NCRs issued during an audit. ANAB is exploring strategies for addressing these and other weaknesses in the certification process to ensure better and more consistent audits.

Compatibility With Other Management Systems

The two technical committees (TCs) responsible for the quality and EMS standards have always worked together to improve compatibility and avoid conflicting requirements in the ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 standards.

In 2004, the ISO’s technical management board (TMB) instructed the two TCs to better align the two standards. The resolution stated that future revisions of ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 are to have common elements, described by common text and terminology.

To support this alignment, the TMB proposed that the two subcommittees align the development schedules of the two standards. A draft joint vision was created to respond to this resolution. In addition, a structure with a systems based approach was proposed to replace the current plan-do-check-act and process approach structure.

To further the alignment of the full suite of management system standards (MSS), the TMB established the Joint Technical Coordination Group (JTCG) and the Strategic Advisory Group on MSS (SAG-MSS).

The JTCG acts as the main coordination body for MSS activities and represents the views of the respective TCs. The SAG-MSS represents the user community and advises on strategic management trends and their potential impact on the development of MSS documents.

The JTCG will be building on the draft joint vision, expanding the alignment strategy to other MSSs and incorporating user needs to ensure their market relevance.

There are several concerns with this initiative:

  • User feedback attesting to problems with implementing multiple MSSs is lacking.
  • No one has confirmed whether impacted organizations will realize sufficient value to make revision of their current systems to conform to a restructured, aligned standard worthwhile.
  • It will be difficult to achieve total alignment among many diverse technical management standards, particularly with the mandate to use common text. Some users want technically specific information and even prefer information customized to their industry, rather than generic information that applies to a broader spectrum of industries. If common text is mandated, the aligned standards are unlikely to meet the needs of these users.

Next 10 Years

TC 207 leaders established goals and objectives in their TC 207 strategic plan to address each of these issues (see Table 1). The committee was expected to affirm or revise the goals and objectives at its June meeting in Beijing.

Table 1

The upcoming process of revising ISO 14001 will start in 2008 and will no doubt address some of these issues. Those who have interest in setting the direction for ISO 14001 and environmental management during the next 10 years are invited to join the U.S. technical advisory group and help chart the course. To join, contact ASQ at standards@asq.org.

SUSAN L.K. BRIGGS is director of environment, health and safety for Textron Systems, Wilmington, MA. She holds a bachelor’s degree in natural science and statistics from Harvard University. Briggs served as a U.S. expert on the ISO TC 207, subcommittee 1, working groups revising ISO 14001 and ISO 14004 and drafting ISO 14005. She currently chairs subtag 1 of the U.S. technical advisory group to TC 207. She is a member of ASQ and an ASQ certified quality engineer, auditor and manager.

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