New Report Suggests Environmental Management Systems Have Potential to Address Critical Environmental Issues

March 16, 2000, Oakland, California. — Emerging international standards have the potential to help businesses reduce energy consumption and pollution, according to a scientific review, which also warned that the standards could be used to mislead the public into thinking individual companies are friendly to the environment.

The standards, known as the ISO 14000 series, have been published by an international federation called ISO, or International Organization for Standardization. As global markets open under the World Trade Organization, greater emphasis is being placed on international standards to guide business behaviors that have traditionally been regulated by national governments.

The Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based research organization, has closely observed the development of the environmental management standards by the Swiss-based ISO. In a report released today by the Institute, Managing A Better Environment: Opportunities and Obstacles for ISO 14001 in Public Policy and Commerce, the Institute’s Jason Morrison and his co-authors assess the future of the ISO 14000 standards, focusing on the environmental management system (EMS) standard, ISO 14001.

The report critiques the ISO 14001 standard, which is being adopted by thousands of businesses around the world, including such big name companies as Ford, General Motors, IBM, and Bristol-Myers Squibb. The standard is significantly different than those traditionally used to regulate business because it does not limit the amount of pollutants that can be discharged into the environment. Rather, the standard is a process that companies can use to examine how they manufacture goods and services, and through that assessment reduce raw materials and energy and emissions.

The report concludes that ISO 14001 could prove to be either a force for substantially improving the environmental performance of organizations, or a dangerously misleading indicator of their environmental stewardship. “This standard could prove to be a valuable tool for reducing environmental impacts that are not easily addressed with traditional regulations,” said Jason Morrison, the Institute’s lead scientist on the project. “Because it emphasizes a holistic review of operations, the standard can reduce energy consumption, polluted runoff or the use of chemicals that end-of-the-pipe controls simply miss.” Moreover, Morrison concludes, effective EMSs could allow regulators to focus their limited resources more on industry laggards and compliance programs for smaller businesses that need more assistance in improving environmental performance.

But the downside of the ISO 14001 standard, Morrison said, is that companies can conform with its procedures but still be major polluters. Among the Institute’s specific concerns:

  • The public could be misled about the meaning of ISO 14001 certification
  • Regulators could go easy on businesses conforming to the standard
  • Small and medium-sized companies required by large corporations to conform to ISO 14001 may find it too costly to become certified

Environmental Management Systems help organizations to manage, measure and improve the environmental aspects of their operations. Key elements include an organization’s analysis of the environmental impacts of its operations, development of processes to meet environmental goals established by the organization, and a system to monitor progress in meeting these goals. ISO 14001 is the dominant EMS in the world today, with more than 13,000 organizations certified to the standard.

However, the Institute’s report warns of dangers associated with EMSs. ISO 14001 certification denotes only that an organization has established an EMS and says nothing about an organization’s actual environmental performance; indeed, the organization need not even be in compliance with all relevant national or state laws and regulations. There is the danger that the general public will be misled into believing that an organization that is ISO-certified is “green.” There is also the threat that organizations will be given regulatory dispensation on the basis of certification by misguided legislators and regulators.

The Institute’s report recommends that organizations publicizing ISO 14001 certification also be required to report on environmental performance. It also recommends that governments using ISO 14001 in a regulatory setting augment the standard to require organizations to prioritize pollution prevention, and to promote transparency and accountability to local communities and the general public.

The ISO 14000 group of environmental standards grew out of efforts at the Earth Summit Conference in 1992 to establish international environmental standards for organizations to help achieve sustainable development. However, the report argues that ISO does not adequately represent important stakeholders in the environmental standard making process, including developing nations in most regions of the world and non-governmental organizations. The report outlines ways that ISO can ensure more balanced representation in the future.

“The protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle,” Morrison concluded, “are a clear signal that the public is afraid of international organizations that might impose standards that weaken environmental protection. The ISO 14001 framework must be strengthened to ensure that it does not take us down that road again.”

Contact: Jason Morrison