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What Are Environmental Management Systems (EMS)?

Quality Glossary Definition: Environmental management system

An environmental management system (EMS) can be developed in compliance with the ISO 14001 standard as part of an organization’s strategy to implement its environmental policy and address governmental regulations. An EMS focuses resources on meeting the commitments identified in the organization’s policy, which could include reducing or eliminating the negative environmental impacts of its products, services, and activities and/or increasing their positive effects.


The three primary processes of a management system include:

  1. Core processes, their outputs, and the identification of significant environmental aspects and impacts
  2. Key supporting processes, such as those for maintaining awareness of legal requirements, ensuring competency of employees, providing infrastructure, communicating EMS information, and monitoring and evaluating environmental performance
  3. Management system supporting processes, such as document control, record control, and internal auditing

Like many quality management systems, environmental management systems reinforce a need to align processes into integrated systems of processes, all focused on providing the highest value to the customer. In this sense, the primary customer of the EMS is the local, regional, and global environment. Secondary customers may include the organization’s owners or shareholders, customers, government agencies, and employees.

ISO 14001:2015 and Environmental Management Systems

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) developed an international standard, ISO 14001, to specify requirements for environmental management systems. According to ISO, more than 300,000 organizations in 171 countries have certified to ISO 14001, including more than 3,800 companies in the Unites States.

The standard was revised in 2015. As part of the development process, ISO conducted a continual improvement survey to develop an understanding of the needs of current, past, and potential users.

The purpose of the ISO 14001 management system standard is to specify general requirements and guidelines that, when followed, should provide reasonable assurance that the outputs from the system will have minimal negative environmental impact and improved environmental performance. It should be noted that the ISO 14001 standard is nonprescriptive; that is, it details what should be done, not necessarily how to do it.

The ISO 14001 standard is developed around the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) model of improvement, an iterative process that must be applied regularly to ensure benefits are being realized and the standard is being upheld. The primary operational components of an ISO 14001 EMS can be grouped as follows:

  1. Create/update environmental policy.
  2. Plan:
    1. Environmental aspects
    2. Legal and other requirements
    3. Objectives, targets, and programs
  3. Do:
    1. Resources, responsibilities, and authority
    2. Competence, training, and awareness
    3. Communication
    4. Documentation
    5. Control of documents
    6. Operational control
    7. Emergency preparedness and response
  4. Check:
    1. Monitor and measure
    2. Evaluate compliance
    3. Nonconformity, corrective and preventive action
    4. Control of records
    5. Internal audits
  5. Act:
    1. Management review
    2. ISO 14001 audit 

What are the Benefits of an Environmental Management System?

The advantages of using an environmental management system include:

  • Ensuring a holistic approach to environmental impacts
  • Focusing on only critical aspects and processes
  • Making use of time-tested, mature approaches recognized worldwide
  • Establishing positive relationships with regulators

Economic benefits of implementing an environmental management system or good environmental stewardship that an organization can expect include:

  1. Corporate reputation and image
  2. Lower environmentally related costs and fees
  3. Increased access to new customers
  4. Direct savings through environmental source reduction

Susan L.K. Briggs discusses the ways to measure and show value of an EMS within an organization in the Quality Progress article, "Do Environmental Management Systems Improve Performance?" In addition to the obvious quantifiable benefits in reductions in pollutant emissions and waste, there are three approaches to measuring improvements within an organization:

  1. Management system improvement: Qualitative and quantitative improvements to management support processes, such as employee training and awareness, compliance assurance processes, or corrective/preventative action programs
  2. Organizational reputation: Unquantifiable improvements in an organization’s reputation or improved relations with regulatory bodies, community organizations, or other interested parties
  3. Financial benefits: Quantitative cost savings or cost avoidance associated with any of the improvements 

Since the ISO 14001 standard is non-prescriptive, it is important to understand that an environmental management system is what any organization makes it. If one organization does not realize the expected benefits from its management system, an improvement team should identify the organization’s level of maturity and take the steps needed to proceed to the next level in order to reach the full potential of the environmental management system.

Evolutionary model of Environmental Management System development
Evolutionary model of management system development

The History of Environmental Management Systems

Quality approaches have traditionally maintained a fairly strict focus on business and customer issues, such as reducing defects and waste and improving efficiency, profitability, and customer satisfaction.

Environmental and sustainability goals for quality initiatives are relatively recent. Because the business world is accustomed to treating environmental practices as sources of added costs, the challenge for quality practitioners is to identify where environmental and sustainability quality issues, such as reduction of waste and use of renewable energy, also serve business and customer interests.

The characteristics of each stage in the evolution of compliance management to sustainability:

  • 1990 to 1994: Compliance management (CM) meant focusing on regulation and relying on environmental departments to react to issues.
  • 1994 to 1998: Environmental management systems (EMS) brought a more systematic, organization-wide focus on environmental issues.
  • 1998 to 2002: Environmental information management systems (EIMS) involve using web-based systems and integrating multiple systems.
  • 2002 to 2006: Environmental process management systems (EPMS) make use of quality tools, using a project focus to drive improvements.
  • 2006 to current: Sustainability requires integrating environmental, social, and economic goals and using best practices to address risk and uncertainty.


Adapted from Environmental Management: Quick and Easy, ASQ Quality Press.

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