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Introduction to ISO 14001

Jeff Slivka | April 1, 2001

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A green plant grows in front of a blue industrial  background

With the growth of the global economy, public awareness of differences between nations' environmental programs spurred the development of an international standard for environmental sensitivity. This article examines the ISO 14001 standard, certification, and scheduled revisions.

ISO 14000, in simple terms, is the international road map for proactively managing the environmental aspects of business originated by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The impetus for development of ISO 14000 is largely attributed to public concern. Politically oriented bodies, such as environmental advocacy organizations, watchdog groups, and the "green" parties that have established some footholds in government are urging companies to take responsibility for the effects of their business practices on the environment.

This pressure prompted a number of nations over the past 30 or so years to impose environmental regulatory controls that assuaged the local public. With the growth of the global economy in the 1990s, public awareness of differences between the environmental programs of various nations involved in production of consumer goods argued for the development of an international standard for environmental sensitivity.

ISO 14000 is not a single standard, but a series of standards and guidelines, all of which address some aspect of environmental management. Main topics addressed include the following.

  • Organization or Process Standards
    • Environmental Management Systems (EMS)
    • Environmental Auditing
    • Environmental Performance Evaluation
  • Product-Oriented Standards
    • Environmental Labeling
    • Life-Cycle Assessment
    • Environmental Aspects in Products
  • ISO 14001—EMS

The primary standard for the overall ISO 14000 program is ISO 14001, "Environmental Management Systems—Specification with Guidance for Use." This standard presents the required auditable components necessary to achieve ISO certification of an Environmental Management System (EMS). It is not a straitjacket; the wording of the standard leaves a great deal of latitude for corporations to accommodate their companies' unique characteristics into their EMS.

The basic requirements of ISO are that the EMS incorporate the following principles.

  • Environmental policy containing the commitment of management to regulatory compliance, continual improvement and prevention of pollution. This policy is to be made available to the public.
  • Planning to identify the environmental aspects associated with the organization's operations, set objectives and develop a management plan.
  • Implementation and operation addressing responsibilities, training, communications—both internal and external, documentation, document control, operational control and emergency preparedness/response.
  • Checking and corrective action that measures and records achievement against the planning goals, identifies and tracks correction of deficiencies, and reviews the effectiveness of the EMS.
  • Management review to monitor the program and make corrections when appropriate.

The ISO approach to an EMS requires the involvement of all corporate resources as opposed to a few individuals who are relied on by many existing EMSs. This total involvement, when properly planned and executed, draws ideas and participation from the entire staff to solve a corporation's identified environmental impact issues. It is important to note that ISO 14001 is not a regulatory compliance standard. Rather, it focuses on a corporation's commitment to its stakeholders, which include the regulatory community. However, assessment of compliance status is left to the applicable regulatory community.

The Benefits of the ISO Certification

The obvious benefits of an EMS include the positive public response received by a company that is in tune with the environment. Showing the community that the company is managing its environmental matters will have a tremendous impact not only with the people in the community, but also with regulatory agencies. Additionally, the simple fact that an EMS can effectively reduce or even prevent environmental disasters from ever occurring directly impacts the company's bottom line.

Other bottom line benefits of the EMS are less obvious, but no less important. For instance, we have seen a large number of mergers and acquisitions over the past few years. Evaluating the worth of a company without an EMS or way of quantifying material environmental expense may be tricky. In the United States, publicly traded companies are required by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to disclose all environmental liabilities and material environmental expenses associated with future cleanup in the form 10K. An EMS can effectively do this for many companies. Without it, a company could easily subject itself to unwanted environmental liability.

As environmental protection and preservation continue to gain momentum across the globe, it is expected that customers will use ISO as the standard for dealing with environmental management and require certification in doing business. Companies that take a proactive approach will benefit and probably see certification as a competitive advantage.

Lastly, it is expected that ISO 14001 will be a prerequisite for attaining ISO 9001 recertification. For those companies that have already obtained ISO 9001 certification and/or follow Total Quality Management (TQM) principles, ISO 14001 certification is the next logical step.

ISO 14000 is an internationally recognized standard. To date, there have been close to 20,000 companies worldwide that have voluntarily established an EMS and received ISO 14001 certification. Interestingly enough, the United States is not a leader in this area. At first thought, it may be difficult to understand why we "lag behind" on such an issue that has gained great public awareness in our country. However, keep in mind that ISO 14000 is an internationally recognized, voluntary standard. In the United States, our compliance standards far exceed those under ISO 14000.

So, what benefit is ISO 14000 to U.S.-based companies? For companies that have not established a formal EMS, ISO 14000 is a good standard to follow. It also serves as a "comparative" standard to what countries are doing on a global basis. The U.S. companies that benefit most from following ISO 14000 are those that conduct business globally. For these companies, ISO 14000 provides an established standard they can follow and, more importantly, the certainty that others with certification are managing their environmental matters. This is important when you consider the mergers and acquisitions taking place worldwide.


ISO is currently in the process of revising 14001, but no formal process will be established until 2003. This new document will not contain additional requirements for certification. Any changes to the existing document will address two major areas.

  • Compatibility with the new ISO 9000 quality management systems series; and
  • Clarification of text within the standard to help users better understand its requirements.

The simplicity of these changes will not affect the thousands of companies in various stages of implementation and may actually attract other companies looking for guidance on environmental management.

For more specific information on ISO 14000, contact CEEM International Environmental Systems at

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