CE: circle of influence

2nd November 2018

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Liz Shepherd

Emanuela Vanacore, Josh Fothergill, Derek Diener and Mats Williander explore the role ISO 14001 and BS 8001 could play in helping companies manage their environmental aspects.

IEMA has played a key role in the development of both ISO 14001 and BS 8001, and our professionals will be at the vanguard of the global transition to a circular economy.

The circular economy (CE) concept envisages an economy that is less dependent on material throughput and runs on renewable energy. For its part, industry is supposed to get more use out of products by reusing more (via processes such as remanufacturing), and to lose less material through better recycling. A transition to a circular economy would require – by almost any measure – a huge alteration to today’s economy, and delivering it will require disruptive changes to industry. However, there are existing institutions that, if used, could make subtle industry modifications, with large and transformative effects.

We believe that ISO 14001:2015, as the global standard for environmental management systems, could be a catalyst for CE transition if it were used slightly differently, possibly with ‘plug-ins’ from the British CE standard BS 8001:2017.

“In many companies and industries, ISO 14001 is now considered a fundamental part of business”

Environmental Management Systems (EMS) help companies to formally manage their environmental aspects – both the legal requirements and beyond – and ISO 14001 is the most widely used standard for EMS, with more than 300,000 certifications globally in 2017. In many companies and industries, ISO 14001 is now considered a fundamental part of business, or even a precondition for doing business. As such, it is widely implemented in industry. Considering the breadth of its use, it could be said that ISO 14001 carries some influence.

Help or hindrance?

These topics were studied in the TRACE EMS (TRAnsitioning to a Circular Economy via Environmental Management Systems) project conducted by the Research Institute of Sweden RISE (Viktoria) AB between October 2017 and August 2018. The project, funded by Vinnova (the Swedish Agency for Innovation), has investigated the extent to which ISO 14001:2015-certified companies that are exploring their transition towards a CE may benefit from, or be hindered by, their EMS.

The researchers worked closely on the project with two companies, car manufacturer Volvo Car Corporation and IT financing company 3 STEP IT, which benefited from standards expertise on ISO 14001 (Raul Carlsson, from Swerea SWECAST) and BS 8001 (Josh Fothergill). The project aimed to answer several questions: does ISO 14001 hinder or help a transition to a CE? What can be done to make the ISO 14001 standard more usable, to support organisations in the upcoming transition towards a circular economy? And how might BS 8001:2017 be used to enable this?

Through surveys, interviews, workshops and collaborative analysis of both companies’ business practices regulated by ISO 14001, the research generated two main conclusions.

First, ISO 14001 appears to be neither a hindrance nor a help when transitioning towards a CE; its propensity to contribute is totally dependent on the goals chosen and set. However, with a CE-oriented mindset, there are a number of ways organisations can enhance ISO 14001’s ability to influence organisational CE progress:

  • Use the review process to identify opportunities, as well as risks
  • Increase focus on the product, and on what happens upstream and downstream from the company
  • Include strategic goals as part of the environmental risk and opportunity review
  • Evolve ISO 14001’s traditional focus on processes to place far greater emphasis on product-service systems.

Second, there is a mismatch between societal visions such as CE, which are normative, and standards such as ISO 14001, which do not prescribe strategic goals or future states. ISO 14001 was, however, found to include multiple ‘hooks’ that could be used to enable CE exploration or support circular thinking and activities in an organisation via its EMS (life-cycle thinking, linking EMS to business strategy, and so on). These hooks are unlikely to be applied consistently and effectively by organisations implementing an EMS, unless a CE-oriented mindset is developed or already exists within the organisation. This is where the research found that key aspects of BS 8001’s guidance could offer the potential to leverage greater CE progress via an EMS.

BS 8001 helps to define this ‘CE mindset’, placing emphasis on six CE Principles: Value Optimisation, Collaboration, Transparency, Systems Thinking, Innovation and Stewardship. These principles are considered critical to an organisation, forming a comprehensive approach to framing and driving its ambitions in relation to circularity, with the standard’s framework, advice and tools guiding integration. The research conceived of two scenarios where a one-two punch of ISO 14001 and BS 8001 could combine to enable an EMS to coalesce initial interest in CE within an organisation (Scenario 1) or be used as a support to enhance existing CE progress (Scenario 2).

Sparking progress

Discussions identified that organisations with CE interest and an operational EMS are likely to face challenges when aligning and combining these to drive timely progress towards more circular modes of operation. However, by incorporating relevant activity and the CE principles from BS 8001 into an organisation’s development or review of its EMS, there are clear opportunities to spark positive progress. It is suggested that the BS 8001’s guidance is likely to initially prove valuable in advancing CE thinking across the following EMS activity areas:

  • Business strategy and senior management team commitment
  • Interested parties and communications
  • Environmental objectives
  • Organisational culture, values and behaviours.

Initial action in these key areas could help establish, support and align an organisation’s overall strategy with its CE ambitions, helping formulate CE-related environmental objectives and contributing to a broader cultural and behavioural shift across the organisation.

Overall, ISO 14001 provides a structured approach to improving environmental performance but is unlikely to drive CE transition. Organisational interest, commitment and leadership are key to such a transition, but support is needed to structure this ambition into strategic and operational activities. This research suggests there is value in further exploring the integration of aspects of BS 8001’s guidance into core ISO 14001 requirements, with the aim of unlocking the potential for EMS to better support organisational CE transition on a global scale.

Josh Fothergill, FIEMA CENV is founder of Fothergill Training & Consulting Ltd and BS 8001 expert to the TRACE EMS project.

Derek Diener, Emanuela Vanacore, Piema and Mats Williander are researchers at RISE AB-Viktoria and members of the TRACE EMS project research team.

Image credit: iStock


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