The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is the largest organization in the world that develops and publishes voluntary international standards. Its environmental management standard, ISO 14001, was first published in 1996. It underwent minor revisions in 2004. In 2015, ISO published the first major overhaul of ISO 14001 since its initial publication, and participating businesses have until 2018 to update their systems and recertify under the new standard.
But should you? The process is time consuming, labor intensive, and expensive, especially for small to medium enterprises (SMEs), and recertifying under the new standard may require significant changes to your existing system. Is it worth all of that?
Is ISO Still Relevant?
A lot has changed in the 2 decades since ISO 14001 was first published and even in the 12 years since its last update. The existing standard was not equipped to address many modern issues in environmental management, including global climate change, sustainability reporting, and life-cycle considerations in environmental impact management. The newly revised standard seeks to address these issues—but does it come too late? Is there any benefit for employers to obtain or maintain ISO 14001 certification?
An effective environmental management system will first of all help businesses to systematize and achieve compliance with applicable regulatory and industry standards that can lead to fines and loss of revenue. It can also help prevent the sorts of environmental impacts—for example, chemical spills and releases, improper disposal, the creation and accumulation of hazardous wastes—that can create a financial and public-relations liability for businesses. But any effective environmental management system can provide these benefits; why might a business choose ISO certification over or in addition to other possible systems?
For one thing, the ISO standards are internationally recognized; ISO certification can bolster a company’s reputation and competitiveness in the global marketplace. Businesses that can show that they are ISO 14001-certified may have an easier time obtaining contracts than those who do not, since the certification is often used as a simplified way to determine whether potential suppliers meet basic environmental management requirements.
The ISO standards are also a good choice for companies that want to compete globally because of the cooperative arrangement between the ISO and the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO negotiates international trade agreements, sets trade rules, and helps to settle trade disputes. The political agreements negotiated by the WTO are built on consistent technical standards. The ISO is one of three independent standards-setting bodies that work together with the WTO to create those underlying technical standards. (The other two are the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).)
So, the ISO 14001 standard is still used in global trade negotiations to create consistent environmental management requirements. And with the latest update, ISO 14001 is now readily compatible with sustainability accounting systems and other innovations in environmental management and pollution prevention. If you’re doing business globally—or if you’d like to—you may indeed find that ISO 14001 is both relevant and useful.
Tomorrow we’ll look at how businesses can plan for successful recertification under ISO 14001:2015.