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Determining the context of the organization in ISO 14001

Author: John Nolan

The 2015 revision of the ISO 14001 standard will be finalized this month, and one of the key changes will be a clause concerning the identification of the “context of the organization.” When you think about it, this is a totally rational and sensible addition, especially when you consider how scoping out the context of your organization can affect the parameters and performance of your Environmental Management System (EMS) (see also: Environmental performance evaluation) and the wider environment. But what does “context of the organization” really mean, and how do you ensure you do this correctly on behalf of your organization?

Context of the organization: What does it mean?

A simplistic way to view your EMS under the 14001:2004 standard was to think about what aspects and actions could be considered to lessen your organization’s impact on the environment. That approach is extremely one dimensional, which is what the new clause seeks to improve. By considering the context of your organization, you must think of all the direct and indirect consequences, the legal requirements, and all effects on your stakeholders that your EMS performance will have. In other words, to prepare for ISO 14001:2015 compliance you will need to take a “helicopter view” of your organization’s environmental performance, and scope out exactly who that affects, and consequently, what can be identified to mitigate and improve that. So, how exactly does that break down?

Context of the organization: Specifics

The 2004 version of the standard mentions “interested parties” and defines them as “persons or groups concerned with or affected by an organization’s environmental performance.” The final draft of the 2015 standard differentiates between these and the context of the organization. The general context of the organization can be classified as:

  • Internal context: any actions or products and services that may affect your environmental performance
  • External context: may include legal, economic, social, or political issues
  • Environmental context: all other environmental aspects that may be susceptible to damage by your organization’s environmental performance

The expectations of interested parties can then include legal and mandatory requirements (see also Demystification of legal requirements in ISO 14001) and also investor expectations, customer and contractual expectations, any other expectations held by the local community, and so on. It is always good practice to document those adopted by your organization, in order to ensure you can recognize and measure against the objectives you have set.

Therefore, we can imagine the importance of having a good awareness of the context of our own organization to ensure that we not only meet environmental objectives and expectations, but also have a foundation to ensure we are aware of satisfying all external parties and preparing for the future. As ever, this may change from region to region and depending on the sector your organization works in. So, can we use examples to make this easier to understand?

Context example: Consumption of wheat

I once worked with a multi-national manufacturer that processed food and snack products that are consumed in most households. One of the major problems was obtaining huge quantities of wheat for mass production, ensuring consistency of product and taste. Let’s look at the contextual issue to consider and conquer:

  • The lack of wheat is an operational constraint and means that output and consistency may be negatively affected (negative impact due to environmental condition).
  • Using wheat may damage an environment that local inhabitants care about deeply or stop a local supply chain in a region where this commodity is vital (negative environmental impact).
  • Negative publicity regarding the issue and any potential publicity or campaigning may lead to a drop in share price and concern amongst markets and investors (affecting interested parties, shareholders, and stakeholders).
  • It may be possible for the company to buy from another source or country that may welcome the revenue stream (using the company’s own strategic policy to turn a negative to a positive, garner good publicity, and increase the share price by having a strategic view of the company’s environmental performance and its effect on others).
  • Technology: it may be that the organization can use technology to find a method of supplementing the natural product to ensure that less is used (awareness of internal context could affect all other parties in a positive manner if achieved).
  • Environmental and climate change may mean that the commodity becomes threatened, and therefore, the organization must take action to find a substitute (a change in external environment driving the need for environmental change).

So, we now have a better idea of why the ISO 14001:2015 standard, which you can read more about in this blog: The final draft of ISO 14001:2015 is released, needs us to consider the context of the organization. So, what outcome does that give us?

Context of the organization: The outcome

The clause specific to the context of the organization is clearly constructed to ensure that each individual entity considers all external, internal, and associated factors when framing the scope and objectives for its own EMS. In this day and age, paying lip service to environmental issues is rightly frowned upon, and an auditor will now need evidence that the context of the organization has been completely defined with input from the top management team. Then, and only then, can environmental aspects and strategies be defined that will ensure the delivery and maintenance of the resulting objectives – which will be considerably more rounded as a result of this process, to the benefit of all, whether external, internal, or the environment itself.

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