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Tackling Issues of Sustainable Development with ISO 14001

A rather dry necessity routed in process and procedures?  Something usually put in place because it is required by supply chain partners and clients? Or to get ahead in a procurement process?

Or, is ISO 14001 an important piece of the sustainable development jigsaw – addressing environmental sustainability issues, engaging employees and customers, opening up new opportunities and markets and actually something that can be used to stimulate strategic and cultural change?

It depends on how it is used and who is using it. I have always argued the second point – and the updated version of the environmental management standard ISO 14001 makes that argument more compelling.

Treat it as a compliance measure or ‘box-ticking’ exercise and it will do just that (usually with some significant costs involved) – or you can choose to fully embrace the principal of continual improvement and set suitably ambitious targets for making change and it can be used to do so much more.

ISO 14001, the world’s most implemented and recognised environmental management system (EMS) standard was upgraded in 2015.  The reason was to make it fit for purpose for the modern organisation – where environmental requirements are not just about preventing pollution, and where sustainability issues can present as many opportunities as risks.


What do we Mean by Sustainable Development and Sustainability?

Sustainable development has been defined in many ways but the most frequently quoted is that from the UN’s 1987 Report Our Common Future:

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”

And what do we mean by sustainability? A common source of debate and confusion as it is a concept that can be fluid and not readily pinned down. Generally sustainability is the capacity to endure (of a business, country, institution, individual, population, etc.) and is usually human-centric in nature.

I really like Forum for the Future Five Capitals Model which states that there are five types of capital which are necessary for human existence (i) environmental (ii) social (iii) human (iv) technological and (v) financial and we must ensure that we preserve and where possible, enhance each of these.
Source: www.forumforthefuture.org/project/five-capitals/overview

A well designed and structured ISO 14001 EMS contributes to the environmental capital primarily through resource preservation and preventing environmental damage, but also enhances the other capitals, for example:

  • Financial – through saving costs such as energy, waste and water and generating new business opportunities (e.g. low carbon goods and services).
  • Social – through emphasis on procurement, responsible supply chains and stakeholder engagement (e.g. communities).
  • Human – through training and capacity building.
  • Technological – through stimulating innovation e.g. adoption of low carbon technologies in order to meet energy reduction targets.

Other commonly encountered terms include sustainable business, corporate sustainability and corporate responsibility. The key philosophy that binds them is that organisations need to address socio-economic issues as well as environmental responsibility in their business and where they have influence.

That is acting sustainably whilst working towards sustainable development.

Most organisations will be looking at this subject more holistically than just environmentally – for example – a clothing company needs to address social-economic supply chain issues (such as human rights and child labour in supply chains) where environmental sustainability issues are part of a bigger picture.

ISO 14001 is a piece of the jigsaw in this case.

How can ISO14001 Help to Deliver Sustainable Development?

The new standard has some important changes in its approach which I think make it suddenly rather more relevant to a lot of organisations.

I have found in my years as a consultant that many sectors have not used environmental management tools before. For example, I have some experience in the television and media industry where the use of EMS standards is rare but environmental issues are significant – particularly energy use, waste generation and impacts on communities.  In these instances, and many others, where businesses have not taken a standards based approach – the use of ISO14001 to address environmental sustainability issues as part of an integrated approach could be very fruitful.

Here are five specifics of how ISO 14001 addresses sustainable development:

  1. The role of leadership and senior management is greatly enhanced in the new standard – crucially ensuring that they are engaged and that consideration of environmental risks and opportunities is included in wider strategic planning. For the sustainability specialist – working with top management is key to making any meaningful change – and ISO 14001 can be a key tool for engaging this audience.
  2. Assessing the external influence of an organisation on environmental issues (such as in supply chains) is a necessity – the standard makes a formal requirement for life-cycle thinking and sustainable procurement. For many organisations, supply chains present a range of socio-economic risks (such as human rights, health and safety,  equalities) as well as environmental ones (pollution, toxic materials, climate change impact, etc.) and ISO 14001 can be complementary to a joined-up approach.
  3. Compliance – this is taken to be quite a wide definition encompassing environmental laws, codes of practice, sector commitments and supplier/client requirements. ISO 14001 requires that these are identified and compliance regularly assessed through auditing.  Again this approach can be readily widened to incorporate socio-economic compliance issues.
  4. A fundamental change with the new standard is to consider the context of the organisation and the operational and strategic environment it finds itself in, and how this relates to environmental sustainability issues. One approach I have used to frame this with clients is to conduct what is known as a PESTLE analysis, where applicable issues related to political, economical, social, technological, legal and environmental factors are identified and their influence ranked.  The outcomes of the analysis are then used to plan how the environmental management system addresses external issues.  These PESTLE issues are, of course, intrinsic to sustainable development.
  5. Structural alignment with quality system standards ISO 9001 and the upcoming ISO 45001 health and safety standard offer an opportunity to bring in a wider breadth of issues complementary to sustainable development.

    Peter Watts