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7th July 2016


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Nigel Leehane outlines how ISO 14001: 2015 can help organisations address sustainability

The revised international standard for environmental management systems (EMS) does not mandate that users of ISO 14001: 2015 address all elements of sustainability, but its focus is clearly on environmental sustainability as opposed to the ‘old mantra’ of preventing pollution. So how far should organisations stretch themselves to control and influence broader issues of environmental sustainability?

A broader remit

14001: 2015 provides guidance on how to address broader sustainability. It does this by directing users to ensure policies include specific commitments to relevant environmental issues, taking account of the organisation’s context. It explains that the context, including the consideration of the needs and expectations of interested parties, should determine the scope of the EMS. It introduces another link, to the lifecycle of products and services and how far the scope of the EMS should go in considering cradle-to-grave issues. This clearly relates to broader sustainability outside the organisational boundary (see diagram, below).

The revised standard explains that the organisation’s context comprises the ‘external and internal issues that are relevant to its purpose and that affect its ability to achieve the intended outcomes of its environmental management system’. This correlates with the standard’s definition of ‘environment’, which includes people and the inter-relationships between them and other elements of an organisation’s surroundings, so bringing into play both physical and cultural aspects, influenced by the organisation’s context and location.

The annex to 14001: 2015 elaborates, stating that organisational context is a ‘high-level, conceptual understanding of the important issues that can affect, either positively or negatively, the way in which the organisation manages its environmental responsibilities’. These include:

  • external environmental conditions that could be affected by the organisation (such as damage to sensitive habitats and impact on water resources) or could have implications for the organisation (including an increased risk of flooding or heightened threat of water scarcity);
  • external cultural, social, political, regulatory and economic circumstances;
  • stakeholder concerns; and
  • the organisation’s own characteristics, including its culture, capabilities and strategic direction.

The intent is that the organisation understands how it needs to develop its EMS to address not only environmental issues but also to take account of risks to its ability to manage them as well as the drivers for doing so.

Crucially, the revised standard links this high level understanding of environmental issues to the organisation’s purpose and strategic direction. Assuming that an organisation wants to be successful, profitable, and competitive, the EMS should be aligned with these goals. Likewise, an organisation that wants to be innovative and a market leader must ensure its EMS supports those aspirations.

In practice

Let’s imagine a food production company is striving to be a market leader. It undertakes a stakeholder engagement exercise or materiality study and discovers that its target customers and investors value environmental sustainability. Through evaluating its broader context, the firm identifies that it operates in many jurisdictions at variance with these wishes. It finds environmental regulation is poor; environmental infrastructure is weak (perhaps there is a lack of capacity for waste treatment and recycling); workforce skills are low; and it faces an increasing threat from water scarcity. If it truly aims to achieve high levels of environmental performance, it must develop strategies to address each of these.

Having established that these are the key issues, it is apparent that sustainability and lifecycle are inextricably linked. For example, dealing with the threat posed by water scarcity to production will require the company to develop a water resources management or stewardship strategy. This will involve collaborating with a range of stakeholders in the areas it operates, including suppliers and the local communities. It may need to stimulate a waste management infrastructure involving partnerships with potential service providers. Also, the company may benefit from collaborating with educational establishments to promote skills in the workforce, and potentially in regulatory agencies.

Failure to address the major issues will have an impact on the purpose of the organisation to deliver sustainably sourced food products to its customers.

Consequently, the scope of the EMS needs to address or support the management of each issue effectively. This will require processes to identify risks and opportunities at operational level, community engagement, supply chain management and other elements of operational control.

By developing an understanding of its context, and in particular the relationship between its goals and the environment, the organisation can position itself to deliver.

More than compliance

In our example, the food company has high aspirations for sustainability performance, but this will not always be the case. By applying the process for understanding its context, an organisation may determine that complying with legislation is the key driver for its business. If the process has been applied correctly, this may well be an appropriate outcome in a particular market at a given time. Should market conditions change or the organisation adopts a different strategy, it may evolve a more environmentally sustainable approach later.

14001: 2015 provides an extensive toolset that can be brought into play to promote a new approach to environmental sustainability. This include:

  • the process for addressing risks and opportunities, which still centres on an organisation’s environmental aspects but addresses issues such as the alignment of environmental sustainability initiatives with broader business goals;
  • ensuring staff have the relevant competences to address broader environmental sustainability initiatives, which could extend to design, procurement and marketing functions;
  • developing better communications processes – internally for staff and externally for value chain partners and other stakeholders – ensuring that any information disclosed is supported by evidence;
  • extending control and influence (taking a lifecycle perspective) to procurement and delivery of goods and services;
  • integrating strategy, systems and processes to deliver holistic and effective management;
  • monitoring and measuring performance, including through key performance indicators for improvement objectives;
  • genuine evaluation of conformance to compliance obligations, which can include commitments to stakeholders to address environmental sustainability; and
  • management reviews to consider the need for better integration of environmental sustainability into mainstream business processes and to advise the business on implications for strategic objectives.

The emphasis on a more holistic approach, internally through integration and externally across the lifecycle, can encourage the development of processes to control or influence other areas of sustainability, including human rights and labour conditions.

Going further

The recent roundtable on 14001 and sustainability, reported in the April issue of the environmentalist, included several statements from participants that the 2004 version of 14001 had assisted them in promoting environmental sustainability in organisations. They also voiced concerns about the previous standard’s weaknesses in this respect.

The new edition of 14001 should reinforce existing good practice and address areas of concern by encouraging a focus on strategy, integration with business processes, leadership accountability and involvement, cross-functional participation, and lifecycle thinking.

The consensus among the roundtable participants was that the revised standard would help reinvigorate environmental management systems and promote better environmental sustainability performance. If their enthusiasm is reflected throughout the profession, the revised standard will be a success.

Nigel Leehane, MIEMA, is joining SLR as technical director in the environmental management, permitting and compliance discipline. Thanks to Martin Baxter, senior policy advisor at IEMA, for his contributions to this article.

The role of the professional

Environmental management professionals have an opportunity to use the transition to ISO 14001:2015 to refocus their organisations towards the business benefits of environmental sustainability.

They can help their organisations better understand the true risks and opportunities related to the environmental aspects and the relationships with organisational goals, such as innovation in products and services, control of operational costs, market differentiation or sector leadership in sustainability. By adding value to businesses, environmental professionals can also increase the value that is placed on their profession.


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