(This article originally appeared in Pollution Engineering magazine in 1999
and was updated in February 2003.)
What do a Del Monte Guatemalan banana plantation, the Toronto airport, a Guinness brewery in Dublin, and the IBM Corporation have in common? They are all registered to ISO 14001, an international standard for environmental management systems. Since its initial publication in September 1996, use of the ISO 14001 standard has grown tremendously and not just in high-tech industries or industrialized countries. The standard is being used by all kinds of organizations all over the globe.
By the end of 1999, just three years since publication of the standard, there were almost 13,000 organizations worldwide registered to ISO 14001. By June 2002, there were over 40,000 ISO 14001 registrations. These environmental management system (EMS) registrations occurred in every populated region of the world. Whether your company operates primarily in North America or has sites worldwide, it's critical to business success in today's global market to understand what's behind such a broad-based initiative. Where did ISO 14001 come from? Which regions are using the standard? And most important, where will this lead in the future?
Truly an International Standard
Let's start with where ISO 14001 came from. You may already know that ISO 14001 is one of thousands of international standards published by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). However, the broad international involvement in ISO 14001's development and continued review is truly unique within the realm of international standards.
Most ISO standards are developed by a small group of technical experts from interested nations, but development of EMS standards has attracted record involvement since its start in 1993. As of May 1998, ISO reports that TC 207 continues to be the largest Technical Committee in ISO history, with 56 Participating Member countries, 16 Observing Member countries, and 40 Liaison Organizations involved.
Rather than being written by a small group, the ISO 14001 standard was developed through a series of meetings involving hundreds of representatives from countries all over the world. It's amazing that consensus agreement was ever reached with such a large and diverse group! However, consensus was achieved, and the result is a concise and flexible document that describes a consistent basis for environmental management for organizations worldwide.
How could a single document describe environmental management for organizations as diverse as a banana plantation, an airport, a brewery, and a huge multi-national computer firm? The answer lies in the document itself, as well as its development by global consensus. ISO 14001 describes the basic elements that need to be in place in order to have a comprehensive and effective system for managing environmental impacts. It does not prescribe specific performance levels. The standard focuses on what needs to be in place for an effective system, not how a company must implement that system. In this way, ISO 14001 provides a flexible tool for environmental improvement for organizations of any size, with any type of operations, in any part of the world.
ISO 14001 describes 5 major elements of an EMS:
1. Environmental Policy
3. Implementation and Operation
4. Checking and Corrective Action
5. Management Review
Within these five areas, the standard describes the system components that need to be in place to enable each organization to meet its own environmental policy and objectives. While the policy and goals of a banana plantation may be different from those of an international airport, ISO 14001 can help both to achieve their goals.
What you've likely heard more about, however, are ISO 14001 registrations or certifications (the two terms are used interchangeably in many parts of the world). ISO 14001 registration is the result of having an independent third-party auditing body assess an EMS and certify that it meets the requirements of the ISO 14001 standard. In order to be registered, an organization must undergo a rigorous, on-site audit of its EMS to ensure that it is complete and fully implemented. The auditing bodies themselves are typically evaluated and audited by a national accreditation body.
Who's Using ISO 14001?
ISO 14001 is certainly a global phenomenon, with registrations in over 110 of the world's nations. However, some regions of the world have been quicker to adopt the standard than others. Organizations in Europe and Asia have been the most aggressive in pursuing ISO 14001 registration so far, although there are registrations on every continent except Antarctica. Of the almost 41,000 registrations reported as of June 2002:
47% were in Europe
41% were in the Asia-Pacific region
8% were in North America
2% were in South America
1% were in Africa
1% were in north and west Asia (Russia and the Middle East region)
[Click here for a graph showing the specific break-down by individual country.]
ISO 14001 is in widespread use throughout the world, but the drivers and motivations for using and registering to ISO 14001 are quite different from one region to the next. These differences are based on the unique culture, economic situation, and environmental history of each region. Some significant regional differences are highlighted below.
Europe is clearly leading the pack in ISO 14001 registrations, but what's behind this widespread EMS use? Several factors stand out in encouraging European companies to implement an EMS. One is simply culture. European consumers are typically more environmentally conscious and less wasteful than consumers in other industrialized parts of the world. This cultural interest in doing the right thing for the environment carries through to employees, managers, and corporate leadership.
But even more significant is Europe's underlying legislative framework. First, some European countries most notably Germany have many laws in place dealing with all aspects of environmental management. Some of these go far beyond the basic end-of-pipe controls legislated in the U.S., including laws related to recycling, packaging, and resource conservation. Even more important is Europe's current focus on voluntary initiatives to improve industry's environmental performance in the region. The European government is using voluntary programs like ISO 14001 and EMAS (a program for EMS/environmental performance for European industry) to improve the quality of the environment. Their ultimate goal is to achieve environmental performance improvements without the sort of command-and-control approach the U.S. uses.
This same logic holds true in the Asia-Pacific region as well. Many Asian countries have had horrible environmental problems in the past (and present) and hope to be able to clean up the environment effectively without the kind of costly, bureaucratic system that the U.S. uses. In fact, some Asian countries already have strict environmental laws in place but have neither the desire nor resources to provide the kind of enforcement that the U.S. employs. ISO 14001 - and environmental management systems more generally - are seen as a way to improve environmental quality more cost-effectively.
In fact, many people are surprised to see how aggressively Asian companies are working toward ISO 14001 registration, given their past history of less than stellar environmental performance. EMS registrations in less industrialized countries, with poorer environmental controls, lead some skeptics to conclude that ISO 14001 has no value. This type of flexibility is precisely what makes ISO 14001 so valuable. No matter where a company is starting from, ISO 14001 will help them to improve by providing guidance on how to manage environmental aspects effectively. These same motivations are behind ISO 14001 efforts in other regions typically thought of as having poor environmental controls, such as Eastern Europe and parts of Africa and Latin America.
Within the Asia-Pacific region, Japan is a force unto itself. As shown in the accompanying graph, Japan has more ISO 14001 registrations than any other nation in the world almost three times as many as the number-two country, Germany. This aggressive use of ISO 14001 comes from a unique combination of factors. As an island nation with limited natural resources, Japan must take a proactive approach to environmental management, simply to be able to continue to grow economically. In addition, environmental quality is an important cultural element of life in Japan. In a survey by the Japanese Accreditation Board (JAB), the number one reason for becoming registered to ISO 14001 in Japan was to promote environmental protection. One of the biggest drivers for most industrialized nations cost reduction came in a distant fifth place.
Some experts have been disappointed by the lower number of ISO 14001 registrations in the U.S. compared to other countries, but the U.S. has its own unique environmental culture, based on its incredibly complex and strict regulatory system. While organizations in many countries have embraced ISO 14001 as a new way to improve the environment, many U.S. environmental professionals view the standard with some skepticism, as they keep a close eye on the EPA and their state regulatory agency to see how the enforcers will react.
That wariness is changing, however, as the state and federal environmental agencies begin to give cautious support to an EMS approach. The increasing support of regulatory agencies in the U.S. has led to greater acceptance of the standard and a fast-growing number of registrations. Other significant drivers among U.S. companies have been business and economic benefits and competitive pressures. Requirements by companies like Ford and GM for their suppliers to get registered to ISO 14001 are providing further motivation for U.S. companies to use ISO 14001.
With almost 41,000 ISO 14001 registrations worldwide -- and that number growing steadily -- it's obvious that ISO 14001 is not going away. The standard is being broadly accepted by a wide variety of organizations around the globe as a way to improve environmental management. Although the reasons for pursuing ISO 14001 registration may vary from one region to the next, companies around the world are recognizing that environmental management is an essential part of business management.
© 2003, Suzan L. Jackson