Several of the criticisms of the 2004 version of the ISO 14001 standard for environmental management systems have been that a business can achieve certification without taking into consideration impacts beyond its four walls, that management need not be significantly involved, and that the management system is not required to evaluate strategic context. The net effect has been that many “acceptable” environmental management systems are not integrated into existing business systems, stand alone as a bolt on process, are managed only by environmental technical experts, and essentially represent non-beneficial extracurricular activity for the business.  This approach does not offer performance-enhancing synergies, but instead results in care and feeding drain on already lean environmental staffs. The newly released (September 2015) ISO 14001:2015 addresses these shortcomings and more.

Key among the new requirements is the need for management to own and be involved with the management system.  While this type of involvement may seem an obvious necessity for environmental management system effectiveness, its previous omission from the standard has led to many businesses delegating responsibility for all aspects of the system to an environmental professional, often several layers down in the organization. This has limited system effectiveness in many cases and would create even more challenges in light of the new scope and strategic context requirements.

ISO 14001:2015 also now requires that the business look beyond its four walls to evaluate the potential for influencing others who may cause impacts while supporting activities, products, or services on behalf of the entity.  In other words, an assessment of the supply chain is now required as part of the aspect and impact assessment.  Having said this, the standard does provide some wiggle room by recognizing that a business may have limits to its ability to control or influence the supply chain.

The newly revised standard also requires the business to look more closely within its own four walls.  This requirement obligates integration of environmental impact and opportunity decisions into product design, manufacturing, service offerings and activities.  Previously, an enterprise could elect not to consider life cycle of product as part of the certified environmental management system.  For many businesses, this may be one of the most time-intensive and challenging technical and even cultural changes in the new standard.  Implemented properly, this will provide the greatest opportunity for reducing environmental impact and creating a competitive discriminator.

Enterprises that plan to remain ISO 14001-certified have three years from publication of the revision to meet the new requirements.  The logical first step is to develop an understanding of the new requirements and start the education process with top management. While there are likely some readers of this blog who are in top management, the changes to the ISO standard are most likely to be brought to their attention by the EHS professional. This can be somewhat challenging in certain corporate cultures, but it is essential for top management to understand that this is their environmental management system.  For most organizations the next logical step is to perform a gap analysis.  The gap analysis will be the foundation of the plan to move forward.

One of the additional exciting enhancements of the requirements for the ISO family of environmental, safety and quality management systems standards is the commitment by ISO to maximize alignment, so that all three standards will be compatible and, even more importantly, readily integrated.

My experience with devising, implementing, operating, and auditing environmental management systems is that many businesses neglect one of the most important aspects of these systems: they should add value to the organization.  The business is squandering resources if the end result is an expanded bureaucracy and a certificate to hang in the lobby.  The resulting system should be designed to  enhance competitiveness, increase operational efficiency/excellence, synergistically improve quality, have a positive effect on employee morale, increase retention and attractiveness to current and potential employees, improve community and shareholder relations, and reduce risk/cost.  In its essence, ISO 14001:2015 establishes a company as engaged in the sustainability journey.