Has ISO 14001 Helped Change the World?

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With a revision on the horizon, will adoption of ISO 14001 continue to grow?

By Robert Fenn
It’s been more than 20 years since the UN’s Earth Summit was held in 1992. The conference in Rio de Janeiro was unprecedented in terms of both size and scope of what was covered. The UN sought to help governments rethink economic development and find ways to halt the destruction of irreplaceable natural resources and pollution of the planet. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life were drawn into the summit’s process, and it resulted in an attendance of more than 17,000 people, including 100 Heads of State.

While the inevitable compromise and negotiations involved in a conference of this size meant that not every idea was realized, the conference was still recognized as the most comprehensive plan of action for environmentally sustainable development ever sanctioned. The conference Secretary-General, called the summit a “historic moment for humanity.”

The result was a 300 page plan for achieving sustainable development. The event is also attributed as the conceptual birthplace of ISO 14001 as it was the same year the environmental management standard’s development started in earnest.

Following rapid acceptance of the ISO 9001 (née ISO 9000) quality standard, ISO saw the need for a suitable environmental standard, giving birth to a dedicated committee. With representation from 50 countries, the committee sought engagement from a wide range of stakeholders to ensure it delivered. The intention was to create a standard which would serve to:

  • Promote a common approach to environmental management similar to quality management
  • Enhance organizations’ ability to attain and measure improvements in environmental performance, and
  • Facilitate trade and remove trade barriers.

With the UN wishing to address the impacts of business and industrial production methods, ISO 14001 couldn’t come sooner. However, it took until 1996 until it, and associated standards, were finally published. As is often the case, it was first adopted by large multi-national firms, before spreading through supply chains across the world.

The standard’s impact – 17 years on

According to data from ISO’s survey, more than 250,000 organizations are now certified to the ISO 14001 standard across the globe, quite an increase from the 49,000 certified 10 years previously, and an indication of the increasing awareness of the environmental impact we’re collectively making. This figure is in fact considered very reserved, as ISO do not receive figures from every certification body – doubling the number would probably be a more representative figure.

One particular anomaly is the seeming lack of interest in ISO 14001 from the U.S. To put this into context, the UK has around double the amount of certificates than their friends over the pond.

When looked into by ThomasNet, excuses ranged from the recession to the resources required to implement such a management system. While some others argues that America simply prefers to do things their own way, the most likely reason is that there isn’t sufficient client demand for businesses to become motivated to implement it. Take a look at ISO’s survey figures and there are parallels with the biggest adopters having a culture of either mandating or expecting the standard in place. For example, in the UK ISO 14001 is often mentioned in contracts relating to government work. With £227bn spent by the UK’s government every year, that’s quite an incentive for businesses of all shapes and sizes to play ball.

Has it been a success?

ISO 14001’s widespread adoption has been facilitated by its generic nature – it can be adopted by any organization of any size, within any industry sector. It has therefore served the purpose of allowing an organization to demonstrate they are managing their environmental impact, while reducing the need for buyers to spend significant resources on checking the credentials of each and every potential supplier.

However, the fact that ISO 14001 is generic has led to its detractors. The standard provides a framework to manage, monitor and seek opportunities for improvement when it comes to environmental impact. On the other hand, it doesn’t specify, for example, how far water use should be reduced by, or what your recycling rate should be. A cynic could therefore conform to the standard without actually doing that much to reduce their impact.

The reality is that the standard will only deliver – like most things in life – if it’s approached with the right intentions in mind. Naturally, the results will vary, but numerous studies have shown the standard to be very effective when implemented in the right spirit. Defra’s in-depth study of organizations who implemented environmental management standards found that, on average, organizations who consequently reduced resource use and waste achieved payback in only 3 months.

On a practical level, the results of an intelligent approach are magnified in large companies. Take Disney’s UK distribution centre, who saved £4,000 in 6 months, just by measuring the use of and then centralizing procurement of toner cartridges!

Stories such as these have helped the concept of sustainable business grow massively over recent years. Resource efficiency is not only good for the environment, but can please even the most hard-nosed board members by helping the bottom line.

Brazil and beyond

ISO 14001 is reviewed and updated regularly to ensure it remains relevant. With sustainability, corporate responsibility and the triple bottom line taking over from merely being ‘green,’ this is to be reflected in the upcoming 2015 update of the standard.

There have been other indications of what to expect from the new ISO 14001:2015, perhaps most notably updated requirements on top management leadership and commitment, including greater integration with overall business strategy – key for sustainability to truly become ingrained. This can be only been seen as good news and may go some way to placate those unconvinced by the standard thus far.

As we are about to enter 2014, Brazil may just have another say in ISO 14001’s development as we wait to see how well the country has prepared for hosting the FIFA World Cup. While behind the U.S., it is currently the biggest adopter of the standard in Central and South America. With the London Olympic Games setting the precedent as the most environmentally friendly sporting event ever, with ISO standards used throughout the supply chain, it will be interesting to see how Brazil compares – will they do more than merely talk the talk?

What do you think about ISO 14001? Join the conversation in the comments below, or via Twitter @TriplePundit

Robert Fenn is a Director at the British Assessment Bureau, a UK based Certification Body. Robert is an experienced speaker and writer on sustainability and corporate responsibility within the business world.

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