How can ISO 14001 implementation contribute to sustainability?

ISO 14001 is widely recognized as the primary ISO standard to help organizations run an effective EMS (Environmental Management System), and thereby limit the business’s environmental impact. Planning, reviewing, and improving a company’s activities through an effective EMS can certainly mitigate environmental impacts. Terry A’Hearn, head of the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, said in his 2017 TedEx speech that humans are still thought to be consuming the planet’s natural resources at a rate three times greater than the earth can sustain; that is, humanity is consuming so many natural resources that it could only be sustainable if we had three planets, not just one. Given this, sustainability and protection of natural resources is a very real problem; so, how can ISO 14001 and its associated activities help to improve sustainability?

Sustainability – What does it mean?

Brundtland Report defines sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” That said, it’s quite clear that a successful EMS, and the resultant good environmental practices and mitigation of environmental risk, can be significant contributors to reducing environmental impact. So, what steps can be taken – using ISO 14001 principles within the EMS – to actually safeguard sustainability, as opposed to merely limiting an environmental impact?

Practical sustainability opportunities for the EMS

Establishing initiatives within your EMS that encourage sustainability is extremely achievable, with some planning and forethought. Let’s look at some practical examples of sustainability initiatives from companies I have worked with in the recent past:

1) Use recycled products wherever possible throughout the organization: The company in question performed an “audit/review” of all consumables and uncovered a wide range of products that were part of the regular purchasing schedule, and then investigated the possibility of replacing those products with recycled products. Whether this was recycled printer paper, recycled printer cartridges, new floor covering made from marmoleum (totally recycled compound) for a new area, recycled packaging for shipment, recycled void-fill to ensure packed products remained stable, or even recycled cups and cutlery for the kitchen, these items all had one thing in common – they were manufactured with wholly recycled material, meaning that no raw material was consumed in the production process. Most organizations will find many opportunities to improve sustainability through this simple “review and replace” process; perhaps it’s time for your organization to consider such an audit.

2) Establish measurements to understand your consumption of materials: In the article How to measure the effectiveness of your EMS according to ISO 14001, we looked at how to measure your EMS. Similarly, why not ensure that you measure all your utilities and carbon footprint, and make improvements? Whether electricity, oil, gas, or water, if every individual and business could reduce consumption by 10%, the earth’s natural resources and their future availability could be extended significantly. Reducing carbon footprint can have a huge effect on increasing sustainability and ensuring that resources last, and it is an activity that should be within the scope of your EMS. For more help, see the article What is ISO 14067:2013 and why is it useful for carbon footprint?

3) Understand the lifecycle of your product: The ISO 14001 standard now has specific product lifecycle requirements, which we examined in the article Lifecycle perspective in ISO 14001:2015 – What does it mean? If you understand all elements of the “cradle to grave” impact of your product, and have also designed the product with environmental elements, such as the ability to upgrade and recycle, then you may find significant opportunities to improve your sustainability performance. Is there a possibility to reduce consumption in your product, whether in manufacturing or in terms of what it consumes during its lifecycle? (Think of power-saving devices on lighting and electrical goods, or cars that turn off the engine when idling.) Is there any way your product can be upgraded or upcycled to provide the user with significantly longer lifecycle? Does the configuration of your product support future circular economy activities for reclamation of parts for reuse or upgrading? Circular economy activity is an excellent way of increasing sustainability, extending lifecycles, and ensuring that raw materials are preserved. Learn more in the article ISO 14001 and the circular economy – How are they related?

4) Ensure “opportunity” is the positive side of “risk”: The article The role of risk management in the ISO 14001:2015 standard speaks about how risk and opportunity are handled in the EMS. When considering sustainability savings for your business, carefully consider if every risk considered has a potential opportunity on the other side. If the negative aspect of a new project is the consumption of new materials, perhaps the opportunity is to use recycled materials. If you are designing a new product, take extra time to consider the key elements that could improve future sustainability. Can recycled materials be used? Can the product be “future-proofed” in terms of ensuring it can be upgraded in the future? Is there opportunity to use recycled packaging? If the product is electric or electronic, can you offer the service (mandatory, in some countries) to take the product back and ensure that maximum reuse and recycling takes place? Ensure that your risk-based discussions in your EMS focus equally on sustainability, and you can improve your sustainability performance.

Sustainability – Where does the responsibility lie?

Responsibility for sustainability lies with us all, as organizations and as individuals. The good news is, if your organization has an ISO 14001-compliant EMS, you already have the required tools in place. Make sure that your leaders embrace sustainability, that your planning and risk processes bargain for it, and that your organizational knowledge and awareness are in sync with the theory, and you are halfway there. Consider sustainability as both an opportunity and a responsibility, and you can be part of the generation that redressed the balance between the planet’s resources and humanity’s consumption.

Use this free online training ISO 14001:2015 Foundations Course to improve your knowledge about the standard, and to help your sustainability profile.

Advisera John Nolan
John Nolan
John Nolan is a Fellow of the Institute of Leaders and Managers in the United Kingdom, and Prince 2 accredited with a background in Engineering and Electronics and Data Storage and Transfer. Having studied and qualified as both a Mechanical and Electronic Engineer, he has spent the last 15 years designing and delivering Quality Systems and projects across many sectors in the UK, including both national and local government.