ISO 14001 is changing – what does it mean?

Later this year a revitalised 3rd version of ISO14001 will be launched but what does it mean for organisations already embracing environmental management system (EMS) thinking, and what of those not yet off the mark?

What’s the difference?

The Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) is leading on the revision in the UK and has given members like me the opportunity to input and understand how the changes will (or at least should) impact on organisations and the environment. ISO14001, apart from some guiding principles, is simply a framework and what you put in it is largely up to you. Although still in draft there are evidently several key enhancements to be adopted within the latest draft (ISO/DIS14001 Environmental management systems – Requirements with guidance for use). Here’s a brief summary as we see it:

  • Strategic direction: Environmental matters are to be given a higher profile within the normal business of the organisation, with a requirement for environmental objectives and goals to be built into strategic planning decisions. It makes sense and is meant to overcome the tendency for the environment to be pushed into a corner rather than intertwined through departments.
  • Risk: In addition to considering how an organisation impacts on the environment, environmental risks that could impact on organisations (e.g. flooding, water supply) will be covered. This recognises that impacts brought by climate change, resource constraints, amongst other things, are going to be increasingly significant. Risk is often neglected, perhaps due to a lack of understanding of how to consider it generally, or how to think about the environment in this context. Time will tell if these changes will improve the situation. File 230
  • Leadership: ‘Top management’ is to be more accountable and involved. Many practitioners, including ourselves, have always known that without responsibility at decision maker level, benefits are easily overlooked and progress quickly becomes vulnerable to apathy and cuts. This will present challenges to some enterprises and for a number of reasons.
  • Environmental protection & performance: Emphasis is to be more on proactive initiatives to protect the environment rather than on the system’s nuts and bolts. Clearly it is helpful to keep the system itself tidy but true change doesn’t come from having a perfect manual.
  • Lifecycle thinking: To be applied to the impacts of products and services. For a product this might include ‘extraction of raw materials, design, production, transportation, use, and end-of-life treatment’. Environmental managers are not expected to be LCA experts but understanding the basics is fundamental to understanding and then tackling impacts.
  • Better communication: Communication and engagement, internally and externally, are vital to environmental improvement and the new guidelines expand on previous requirements, implying better planning and strategy is required.
  • Structure: Documentation, structure & terminology aligned with other standards including ISO9001. Some terminology takes a little getting used to so standardising it helps.

In essence there is an attempt to stop the environment being ‘over there’, streamlining it within core business activities and focusing attention and detail along the way. These are things that should lead to better outcomes and less impact on the environment.

Making the change if you already have ISO14001 – how hard will it be?

It depends on how far you have gone with your system already. If it already enjoys significant Director level attention, understanding of environmental issues and impacts is high across departments and services, and environmental protection features in core business strategy, you probably have relatively little to do. If you are not in this situation then you might want to start the thinking process sooner rather than later - you have 3 years to implement all changes if you already have ISO14001 in place. There are few steps you can take now to:

  • Get your hands on the draft version (final draft due early summer, final version due September)

  • Draw up a list of the key changes – the summary points above are a start but for detail take a look at the IEMA website and other references e.g. NQA’s ISO14001:2015 Transition guidance 

  • Summarise where you think your organisation is now next to each change

  • List a few action points– these might include finding out more as a starting point

New to ISO14001 – what will it mean?

ISO14001 (or other formal environmental management system) isn’t always the best option for an organisation looking to tackle environmental issues, and there are many organisations taking effective action without it. It can however be a helpful tool and if you are thinking about implementing ISO14001, you should focus on the new version now, even though it’s not yet in its final form. It is more demanding (in a good way) but it’s clearer, comes with supporting guidance and fits better with other standards such as the quality management system ISO9001, which is also due for a revamp later in the year.

We have thoughts on how organisations can (and should) go beyond the standard and will explore these in a later brief.


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