Ascending the learning curve

6th March 2017

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Paul Drysdale

Environment manager Deborah Southwell tells Paul Suff how Birmingham City University made the transition to the revised 14001 standard

Securing ISO 14001: 2015 certification just a few months after starting a new job was the challenge facing IEMA member Deborah Southwell. She joined Birmingham City University in September 2016 and, just four months later, auditors from certification body NQA completed their review of the institution’s environmental management system.

Southwell admits that it felt like a tall order, but says the process helped her to assimilate the environmental sustainability issues facing the institution, identify where improvements could be made and to engage university colleagues. ‘Coming in to deliver the transition to the latest version of 14001 in such a short timeframe was a big challenge, but it was also a real opportunity to look at what we were doing and ask: is it working? Are we securing continuous improvements? What do we need to change?’

Working together

Organisations have until September 2018 to transition to 14001: 2015, the revised international standard for environmental management systems. Many have already done so. An effective gap analysis, plotting the differences between the old (2004) and new versions, can ease the change. This was the starting point for Birmingham City University.

Environment practitioners in UK universities tend to share best practice and many are members of the EAUC, the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges. Southwell says she spoke to others about their approach to making the transition, including environmental colleagues at the University of Worcester: ‘Universities are really open and are keen to collaborate. The EAUC encourages practitioners to share ideas and knowledge. Speaking to people going through the same thing is a good way to test your ideas and ensure you are on the right track.’

Birmingham City University partnered with Coventry University to audit each other’s EMS and their compliance with 14001: 2015. ‘Coventry’s environment manager carried out a peer audit of our EMS,’ says Southwell. ‘It was a really useful exercise for the gap analysis. Having a fresh, external pair of eyes look at our system was good for spotting things you might not notice internally. It helped to identify the key areas in the new standard for us to focus on.’

Birmingham City University is a member of the EcoCampus scheme, a commercial service that offers a flexible, phased approach to implementing an environmental management system for the higher and further education sector (see panel, p38). The tiered scheme runs from bronze to platinum. Birmingham achieved platinum status in 2013, which is broadly equivalent to 14001, having secured certification to the international EMS standard in 2011.

Reviewing the changes

Engagement across the organisation was key to the university making the transition to 14001: 2015 and meeting the January deadline, says Southwell. ‘Given the tight timeframe and the need to get buy-in for any changes we would have to implement, I decided to get input from as many of my colleagues as possible,’ she says. Southwell also spoke to students, giving a lecture on the university’s environmental management system and the transition to 14001: 2015 to those on a master’s course. ‘I used it to get a student perspective on environment issues facing the university. It also gave students an insight into what they might face in their careers.’

EcoCampus offers institutions access to workshops, guides, software – including a full document control system with pre-written templates – and opportunities to network with peers from other universities and colleges, all of which Southwell took advantage of. At the university’s environment committee meeting in October, Southwell used a spreadsheet provided by EcoCampus to perform a PESTEL analysis of the requirements of the revised standard and how issues may affect the university. ‘The spreadsheet format encourages you to keep information clear and simple,’ she says. ‘Too much and there is a risk people will switch off.’

The committee meets three times a year and has up to 15 members, including the assistant director and heads of services, such as estates and facilities, as well as senior lecturers. A PESTEL analysis is commonly used to examine and monitor factors that have an impact on an organisation and Southwell used the tool to determine which internal and external issues would affect the ability of Birmingham City University to achieve the intended outcomes of its environmental management system. These goals are: enhance the environmental performance of departments and schools within the scope of the system; fulfil compliance obligations; and achieve environmental objectives.

‘14001: 2015 requires organisations to understand their context, identify interested parties and their needs and expectations, and consider risks and opportunities,’ says Southwell. ‘So we got the committee to consider the external and internal implications for the university in the six PESTEL areas: political, economic, social, technological, legal, and environmental.’

Discussion focused on the risks and opportunities in each. Questions under the political heading asked how changes to government policy might affect the higher education sector and Birmingham City University. Social issues examined ranged from the effects of climate change on society to changing demographics, while environment concerns included availability of resources.

Wide support

Southwell concedes that the established support for the environment among senior management at Birmingham City University was hugely helpful in achieving a successful transition: ‘I’m lucky that the environment is on people’s agendas. There is strong buy-in for good environment management at all levels across the university. At the top, our environmental policy is signed off by the vice-chancellor and the president of the students’ union, while the management review of the environmental management system goes to the senior management group. Colleagues are also proactive. The group assistant director of campus services is responsible for things with big environmental impacts, such as the waste services contract, transport and cleaning, and she “gets” that environment is important and will come to me with ideas for improvements. Environment management is also built into the performance reviews of facilities managers and building supervisors.’

Senior management commitment to the environment was evident during the NQA audit in January. 14001: 2015 requires the organisation’s top managers to demonstrate their commitment to establishing, maintaining, reviewing and improving an environmental management system. Southwell says the auditors interviewed the chief finance officer to test this: ‘He only started in October but was keen to meet the auditors on his own. They were impressed and it was a real demonstration of senior management buy-in and ownership of the system.’

The university’s ambition to manage its impacts well is reflected in the new buildings under construction. ‘All our new buildings must be at least BREEAM excellent and the carbon reduction and energy officer, who is a BREEAM assessor, is on a two-year secondment to ensure the £280m we’re investing in new facilities meet our environment aspirations,’ says Southwell.

Assessment of performance

Auditors spent the equivalent of five working days at the university. ‘We had two auditors for two days and one on the final day,’ says Southwell. The first day focused on the clauses relating to organisational context and interested parties, how the university’s policy objectives and targets link to department and individual personal development plans, and the aspects and impacts register, including the new requirement for lifecycle assessment. The auditors also visited sites, such as halls of residence.

Day two was concerned with leadership, monitoring and measuring, procedures for emergency business response and sustainable procurement issues. The final day examined the university’s approach to constructing new facilities and refurbishing buildings. The auditors also required the univeristy to complete its own gap analysis tool.

The auditors identified four opportunities for improvement, one concerning the aspects and impacts register. Southwell says: ‘We highlight where there is a compliance obligation against an aspect. Although this is fairly standard for universities, it gets flagged as a significant aspect even if the risk of non-compliance is very low. The auditors have suggested we revise this so we plan to alter our scoring methodology so that low-risk issues no longer flag as red.’

Lessons learned

Southwell believes the greater emphasis in 14001: 2015 on leadership is one of the best changes to the standard because it provides environment managers with the opportunity to talk to senior managers and win their support for the sustainability agenda. The language adopted in the new version, in particular the use of terms such as risk and opportunities, has helped. ‘They are business terms, so people in departments such as finance understand them. The inclusion of opportunities is also good and means we do not just focus on the negatives but what savings can we generate from making environmental improvements.’

However, Southwell said more thought is needed regarding the requirements in the revised standard for lifecycle thinking. ‘We based our lifecycle assessment [LCA] on our aspects to see where we could have an influence and generate improvements. It was a useful exercise, but I’m not sure how in-depth the assessment by auditors of this will be going forward. NQA suggested that we limit the LCA process to our significant aspects. That would make it more manageable and we could review them on an ongoing basis and reflect any changes in our LCA.’

Her main advice for practitioners starting the transition to 14001: 2015 is to speak with others in a similar role who have been through the process. ‘I talked to my colleagues in other universities. It helped a lot to understand what the auditors are looking for.’

Moreover, it is a good opportunity to take a step back and use the process to review and revise the organisation’s approach to environmental management.

About Birmingham City University

Birmingham City University has more than 24,000 students and 2,800 staff on three campuses. It is investing £280m in its estate, including a major expansion of the city centre campus at Eastside. This involves extending its Curzon building and, later this year, opening a new home for the Birmingham Conservatoire.

The university’s Faculty of Computing, Engineering and the Built Environment has several courses that cover sustainability issues, including: an MSc in environmental sustainability; an MSc in environmental surveying, which focuses on the environmental challenges faced by professionals in the construction industry; and an MA in planning built environments, which looks at climate and environmental change, resource pressures and the rapidly evolving social, legal and political contexts in which planners operate.

Last autumn, Birmingham City University joined with nearby Aston University to dedicate three days of the second-year teaching timetable to the impact of climate change on business and society, with the aim of ensuring students are equipped to join the organisations that will be grappling with its effects in future. As part of the programme, business leaders from Jaguar Land Rover, Siemens, and Foster and Partners spoke to students about the challenges and opportunities posed by climate change in their sector. Professor Julian Beer, deputy vice-chancellor at Birmingham City University, said at the time: ‘We want to help students understand how global warming will hurt their future, the need to adapt to the stresses of a changing climate, and the potential for innovation to fix impending problems and open up new opportunities for transformation and growth.’

Birmingham City University was ranked 31st in the 2016 People & Planet university league, which assesses UK higher education establishments on their environmental and ethical performance. The university tops the institutions classed as 2:1 universities with a score of 52.2%. It scored 100% for its environmental policy, and auditing and environmental management system. It was 39th in 2015.


EcoCampus is the environmental management scheme for higher and further education. There are four phases:

  • bronze (planning);
  • silver (implementing);
  • gold (operating); and
  • platinum (checking and correcting).

Each phase contains minimum requirements that lead towards implementation of a fully operational environmental management system (EMS). The platinum award conforms with the requirements of the international environmental management standard ISO 14001. The scheme provides training, consultancy, e-learning and software as well as third-party verification by certification body NQA for gold and platinum awards.

At the start of February, 47 institutions were included in the EcoCampus register. Of these, 18 were platinum and five had made the transition to 14001: 2015. As well as Birmingham City University, they are: Bloomsbury Colleges (Birkbeck, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and SOAS); Manchester Metropolitan University; University of Braford; and University of Worcester.

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