The flexible interpretation of EMS and the need for a standards reform –the case of ISO 14001.
Ulrik Jørgensen*, Michael Søgaard Jørgensen, Erik Hagelskjær Lauridsen

Unit for Innovation and Sustainability, Department of Manufacturing Engineering and Management, Technical University of Denmark (DTU), 2800 Kgs. Lyngby, DENMARK

Kaare Hendrichsen, DANAK

Stig Hirsbak, Hirsbak Consult

Nils Thorsen, Ernst & Young Denmark

* corresponding author: E-mail: uj@ipl.dtu.dk Phone: +45 4525 6075 Fax: +45 4588 2014

EMS were developed based on the experiences in European industries during the 1980ies where some industries expressed an interest in taking a lead in improving their environmental performance and criticized government regulation for not supporting innovation. At the same time new environmental perspectives on resource minimization and improvements created a broader focus than the command and control regime was able to handle. Voluntary action by industries and the communication of these actions to customers and stakeholders created a supplement to the environmental regulations enforced by government. In many European countries voluntary EMS schemes were offered to industries to support what was considered more market oriented types of environmental protection measures, and these schemes - first in the form of BS 7750 and later as the improved ISO 14001 - were diffused and implemented in a growing number of industries in countries in South East Asia, lately in China, and also in the US.

The EMS itself does not imply any specific environmental action to be taken or any specific environmental performance measure to be met. This is left to the policy of the individual company. What the standard should guarantee is only that the company being certified is basing its policy on a careful and documented account of the environmental aspects and risks involved in their activity and does follow up on those part defined as the companies policy for improvement. The only exception from these relative and policy prone measures is one element in the ISO 14001 standard demanding the company to include conformity with all legal requirements in its environmental policy. But also this part of the standard is in practice open for interpretation, as it is possible at least to identify three different interpretations of what is meant by legal requirements, ranging from satisfying all stated environmental measures and standards defined by government, to focusing on those specified for the specific type of industry in question, to only checking for those requirements also enforced in practice by government authorities.

While ISO 14001 by many bystanders may be seen as some kind of a guarantee that a company is performing well in its environmental activities, no binding policy commitments are in fact required and even the demand for compliance with regulatory requirements is open for interpretation. Having a certificate demonstrates that a company should be able to explain its environmental impact but does not secure proper action to be taking neither does it guarantee good environmental performance since the ambitions regards environmental performance objectives and targets is exclusively a company decision, high or low performance, or no objectives at all. Often you will find ISO 14001 certified companies in branches with heavy polluting processes, and in cases where the local governmental authorities are not enforcing regulation these may have excessive pollution even in areas where you would expect them to be in conformity with regulatory demands.

In practice the role of ISO 14001 as a provider of environmental improvements from industry is more dependent on the moral and technical qualities of certifying bodies and the national accreditation bodies and the coherence in the national networks of environmental professionals’ codes of conduct than on the standard itself. As most of these bodies are competing on market bases for customers the mere idea of an independent third party control is not providing any safe haven for the environmental impact of EMS. Therefore more and more companies in the retail and production business are demanding more specific environmental, health and safety criteria to be met by their suppliers and even often carry out their own audits at the suppliers’ production sites.

To explain this development and to find ways to improve the quality and working of ISO 14001 we need to return to the outset for these EMS activities. They were created in Europe in a situation, where government regulations were tightening, and where environmental professionals in government, NGOs, and companies were cooperating unofficially and exchanging knowledge. These networks of professionals took more or less for granted that the EMS system would improve along the way with their own professional skills and insights and that their community of practice would support the development of tougher performance standards to be met by industries. When writing the ISO 14001 standard the focus therefore was on the procedures and documentations more than on the performance measures to be met. Their own professional knowledge and identity was somehow taken for granted and to avoid conservative and restraining technical specifications and standards and open for continuous improvements the role of this knowledge and its material and institutional base was not explicitly referenced in the standards, but implied when the standard uses notions like ‘environmental aspects’ and ‘risks’. The professional knowledge network role and importance were ‘hidden’ and ‘black-boxed’.

After EMS has been successfully transferred to almost all parts of the world the coherence and knowledge networks implied are no longer obvious and functional. Large numbers of consultants and industry organizations have entered the arena and are trying to define the goals and provide the performance criteria to be met.

Though arguments can be made to prove the case, that EMS does create a more focus on environmental issues in the companies being audited and acquiring an ISO 14001 certificate, the big challenge is whether some of the basic definitions and conditions for the standard has been outdated and do not satisfy the conditions for international documentation of environmental and other performance criteria today. Four major areas for improvements in the definition and implementation of the ISO 14001 series and those standards following up on this can be identified.

  • The first is related to a more strict definition of the legal requirements to be met by companies to maintain their certificate.

  • The second is related to the specific demands defined by customers of a company which should be included in the audits and policies as well.

  • The third is related to the quality of the audit themselves and the competences and performance tests concerning the environment that have to be documented by the certifying body including the legal responsibility of this body in cases of non-performance.

  • The fourth is related to disclosure of environmental performance data covering a minimum of   environmental indicators based on strict standards for accounting principles and audits to certify that accounting and calculation principles are fully implemented for performance data presented. This perspective could be based on a further development of ISO 14031 and operational experiences. 

The article argues with specific references to the history and criteria set by the standard including the knowledge collected from series of case studies of how the ISO 14001 does work in practice in the implementation by consultants and certified companies and why a reform is needed.

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The Ontario, Canada 2007 Meeting