EHS Management, Sustainability

Earth Day: Achieving Sustainability Through Environmental Management Systems

Today, April 22, is Earth Day, a day where environmental issues such as climate change and sustainability are highlighted nationally and people all around the United States discuss solutions, for the public and for businesses, that will help keep this planet healthy. The first Earth Day was in April 1970, and it was followed by Congress authorizing the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) later that year.

In terms of sustainability efforts from businesses, the EPA provides resources for companies to help them implement environmental management systems (EMS), which are a “set of processes and practices that enable an organization to reduce its environmental impacts and increase its operating efficiency.” The EPA further defines an EMS as a “framework that helps an organization achieve its environmental goals through consistent review, evaluation, and improvement of its environmental performance.” While an EMS cannot determine the environmental standard a company should be reaching, it will help leaders see the areas that need work, so each organization should customize their EMS to fit their needs and goals.

Basic elements

According to the EPA, there are several basic components of an EMS, which company leadership need to understand. In order to have an effective EMS, employers must:

  • Review the organization’s environmental goals
  • Analyze the environmental impacts and compliance obligations, legal or otherwise
  • Set environmental goals and targets to reduce environmental impacts and to remain in compliance
  • Establish programs to meet these goals and targets
  • Monitor and measure progress and achievements
  • Ensure the environmental awareness and competence of employees
  • Review progress of the EMS and making improvements

An EMS is intended to be proactive, cost-effective, and able to address regulatory requirements in a systematic way, and taking these steps can help a business achieve greater sustainability. The goal is to reduce the risk of non-compliance while simultaneously improving the overall EHS practices for employees and the public, says the EPA.

Implementation

Leaders should aim to achieve a continuous cycle of improvement when implementing an EMS. The EPA cites the most commonly used EMS framework, developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) for the ISO 14001 standard, that follows a five-step process that repeats itself interminably and is meant to yield ongoing progress.

  1. Commitment to policy: Top management commits to environmental improvement and establishes the organization’s environmental policy, which becomes the foundation of the EMS.
  2. Planning: Identify environmental aspects of company operations, determine which aspects are significant by choosing criteria that the organization considers most important, set overall environmental objectives and detailed, quantified targets to aim for, and then come up with an action plan to meet those targets which includes designating responsibilities and establishing a schedule along with defined steps to take.
  3. Implementation: Follow through with the action plan using the necessary resources, document everything, follow operating procedures, set up internal and external communication lines, and make sure that all employees, including interns and contractors, are trained and aware of the new policies and practices.
  4. Evaluation: Monitor company operations to evaluate whether or not the set targets and objectives are being met, and if not, then take corrective action.
  5. Review: Top management reviews the results of the evaluation to see if the EMS is working, determines whether the original environmental policy is consistent with the organization’s values, and then revises the plan to optimize the effectiveness of the EMS.

Costs and benefits

The EPA lays out the costs and benefits that employers could see happen if they implement an EMS in their organization. The internal costs would include the staff and manager time and other employee time, and the external costs would include potential consulting assistance and outside personnel training.

The list of potential benefits that can come from implementing an EMS spans across several different aspects of a business. From a company standpoint, an effective EMS can lead to improved environmental performance, enhanced compliance, new customers and markets, increased efficiency, reduced costs, and enhanced image with the public, regulators, lenders, and investors. On a more significant scale, an EMS can aid in pollution prevention, resource conservation, employee awareness of environmental issues and responsibilities, and increased employee morale, which can help make a business more sustainable.

For more information, click here to see the EPA’s full list of resources regarding EMS.