Over the years I’ve seen many environmental policies. Some are good and some, well, not so good. It’s a common task for environmental practitioners to write a policy from scratch, or at least maintain an existing policy. Therefore, I thought it would be helpful to identify good practice when it comes to policy development.
An environmental policy statement is a key document that outlines the aims of an organisation with regards to environmental management. It is an expression of the organisation’s top management commitment to high standards of environmental performance. It is advisable in environmental management to use either, good practice guidance or law as criteria for development of controls. We will consider the relevant requirements of ISO 14001:2015.
Generally, a policy statement will be around one page in length. Its purpose is not to be an in-depth document. It is designed to provide a high-level overview of an organisations environmental strategy. It is backed up by the rest of the Environmental Management Systems (EMS), which provide more technical detail.
When Should You Write an Environmental Policy?
Knowing when to write an environmental policy is where a lot of organisations fail. The policy must be based around key issues of an organisation. To ensure that a policy is appropriate to an organisation, it must be written after environmental aspects and impacts are understood and prioritised. Otherwise it is likely to be irrelevant.
Developing the Environmental Policy Statement
The policy should have an opening paragraph that describes the organisation. This does not need to be a technical summary. Just an overview of the organisations activities, location(s) or products/services offered. This will help the reader to assess whether the remaining parts of the policy are relevant or important. For example, a policy commitment to reduce office paper use will not usually be considered a key issue for a chemical manufacturing business.
Next, write a paragraph that covers the organisations general commitment to high standards of environmental performance. This could include the specific commitments required by ISO 14001such as to:
- Fulfil compliance obligations (legal requirements and other similar requirements such as customer or corporate standards)
- Achieve continual improvement, and
- Protection of environment (including prevention of pollution)
I would write these specific commitments pretty much using the exact wording as stated in ISO 14001.
Subsequently, think about developing some specific policy aims. A decent framework is to develop strategic aims that are directly linked to the organisation’s significant environmental impacts. For instance, if an organisation has a significant carbon footprint it would be expected that there is a commitment to reduce this within the policy statement. Such commitments are usually not quantified, and quite broad in nature. More specific objectives, linked to policy commitments, should be provided elsewhere in an organisations EMS. When developing commitments, it is not good practice to use terms such as: ‘strive’, ‘aim for’ or similar. These are weasel words. It is better to state objectively, an aim that your organisation can achieve, rather than vaguely commit to one that you might not. By providing such strategic aims, this will ensure the policy is appropriate to the organisation.
Although not stated specifically in the standard, it is implied that policies are signed by the most senior person in an organisation. The policy is a commitment of top management of the organisation. Additionally, It should be available to all staff, and others interested parties such as clients or the general public. The policy, therefore needs to be made available on websites, intranet or noticeboards, etc. Communication of the policy is key, otherwise it is just a document seen by nobody. The policy will need a form of version control, so the reader can see when the policy was written. It is common, therefore, to provide information such as issue and review dates.
To summarise, a policy is a key document that outlines the values and beliefs of the organisation. It is imperative that it is written in a specified format. It must be easy to understand and read, and understood by non-specialists.
John Binns BSc (Hons), MSc, MSc, MIEMA
With over 19 years’ experience working in environment management, John Binns BSc (Hons) MSc MIEMA is an experienced environmental tutor and consultant with knowledge of health and safety management.