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What is ISO 14001?

“What is ISO 14001?” Is there a simple answer to this question?

You are not alone in thinking this. This overview guide is here for you to learn the basics of ISO 14001, help you to discover what the ISO 14001 requirements are, and to give you a guide on what needs to be done to implement an environmental management system and become certified.

What are the simple basics of ISO 14001?

ISO 14001 has become the international standard for designing and implementing an environmental management system. The standard is published by ISO (the International Organization for Standardization), an international body that creates and distributes standards that are accepted worldwide. The most recent version of the environmental management system requirements was published in 2015, and is referred to as “ISO 14001:2015.” The standard was agreed upon by a majority of member countries before being released and updated, and as such it has become an internationally recognized standard accepted by a majority of countries around the world.

In a survey of ISO 14001 certification at the end of 2013 the number of companies that have implemented an ISO 14001 environmental management system shows a general positive trend worldwide.

Number of ISO 14001 certificates per year

Data taken from 2013 ISO Survey

What is an environmental management system?

An environmental management system, often called an EMS, is comprised of the policies, processes, plans, practices and records that define the rules governing how your company interacts with the environment. This system needs to be tailored to your particular company, because only your company will have the exact legal requirements and environmental interactions that match your specific business processes. However, the ISO 14001 requirements provide a framework and guidelines for creating your environmental management system so that you do not miss important elements needed for an EMS to be successful.

Getting to the heart of why ISO 14001 is important

Taking care of our environment, and preventing our companies from causing negative impacts on the environment, are two of the most important challenges facing businesses today. One of the biggest benefits of implementing an EMS is the recognition that comes with being among those businesses that care enough to reduce their environmental footprint. This can bring better relationships with customers, the public, and the community at large for your company, but it also brings other benefits.

Along with the good public image, many companies can save money through the implementation of an environmental management system. This can be achieved through reducing incidents that can result in liability costs, being able to obtain insurance at a more reasonable cost, and conserving input materials and energy through reduction efforts. This improvement in cost control is a benefit that cannot be overlooked when making the decision to implement an environmental management system.

What does ISO 14001 actually look like?

The ISO 14001 structure is split into four sections. The first three are introductory, with the last section, split into six sub-sections, containing the requirements for the environmental management system. Here is what the six sub-sections are about:

Section 4.1: General Requirements  This section provides an overall statement that the environmental management system needs to be established, documented, implemented, maintained, and continually improved according to the requirements of the ISO 14001 standard. This highlights that the EMS is not a one-time activity to be done and then forgotten, but instead is intended to be maintained to promote improvement.

Section 4.2: Environmental Policy – The environmental policy helps to set the overall goals to meet the scope of the environmental management system. The policy includes the company’s commitment to comply with legal requirements, prevent pollution, and continually improve. It also provides the overall framework to set the objectives and targets for the EMS.

Section 4.3: Planning – There are three parts to the planning process for the ISO 14001 EMS. First, the company needs to identify the environmental aspects associated with the activities of the company. Next, the company needs to identify the legal and other requirements that pertain to the aspects and operational processes and ensure that they are understood and implemented. Lastly, objectives, targets, and programs for improvement of the environmental management system need to be put in place with appropriate resources to accomplish the goals.

Section 4.4: Implementation and Operation  This section has many elements to consider, starting with the assignment of resources, roles, responsibilities, and authorities. Once this is in place you must ensure that competence, training, awareness, and communication (both internal and external to the company) are established for the functioning of the EMS. Documentation and control of documents is required to ensure consistency, as is putting in place operational controls and processes for emergency preparedness and response to ensure that there is uniformity where required.

Section 4.5: Checking – The monitoring and measurement, including evaluation of compliance to legal and other requirements, are necessary to ensure that decisions can be made. Part of this is dealing with nonconformity, corrective action, preventive action, and auditing the processes in place. Without these elements, and the records associated with them, it is almost impossible to tell if things are going according to plan.

Section 4.6: Management Review – Hand in hand with the records from the checking requirement is this requirement for management to review the recorded outputs in order to ensure that actions are progressing according to plan, and to guarantee that adequate resources are applied to meet the requirements.

These sections are based on a Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle, which uses these elements to implement change within the processes of the organization in order to drive and maintain improvements within the processes.

PDCA cycle

Why should you implement ISO 14001 in your organization?

The benefits of ISO 14001 cannot be overstated; companies large and small have used this standard to great effect, as mentioned above. Here are just a few of these benefits:

Improve your image and credibility  By assuring customers that you have a commitment to demonstrable management of your environmental impacts, you can enhance your image and market share through maintaining a good public image and improved community relations.

Improve cost control – One improvement that all companies are looking for is reduction of costs. The EMS can help with this by conserving energy and input materials, while reducing incidents for which a company can incur liability costs and improved environmental controls can help to obtain insurance at reduced costs to the company.

Use evidence-based decision making – By ensuring that you are using accurate data to make your decisions on what to improve, you can greatly increase the chances that your improvements will be successful the first time rather than having several unsuccessful attempts. By using this data to track your progress you can correct these improvement initiatives before they have gone “off the rails,” which can save costs and time.

Create a culture of continual improvement – With continual improvement, you can work toward better processes and reduced environmental impacts in a systematic way in order to improve your public image and potentially reduce your costs, as identified above. When a culture of improvement is created, people are always looking for ways to make their processes better, which makes maintaining the EMS easier.

Engage your people – Given a choice between working for a company that shows care and concern for the environment around it and one that does not, most people would prefer the first company. By engaging your employees in a group effort to reduce your environmental footprint you can increase employee focus and retention.

What are the practical steps to becoming ISO 14001 certified?

What is ISO 14001 certification? There are two types of certification: certification of a company’s environmental management system against the ISO 14001 requirements, and certification of individuals to be able to audit against the ISO 14001 requirements. This section discussed the steps for a company to implement an ISO 14001 environmental management system and have it certified.

ISO 14001 certification for your company involves implementing an EMS based on the ISO 14001 requirements, and then hiring a recognized certification body to audit and approve your EMS as meeting the requirements of the ISO 14001 standard.

Starting with management support and identifying the legal requirements for the EMS, you will need to start with defining your environmental policy, environmental aspects, and environmental objectives and targets, which together define the overall scope and implementation of the environmental management system. Along with these, you will need to create the mandatory and additional processes and procedures necessary for your organization’s operations. There are several mandatory processes that need to be included, and others to be added as the company finds them necessary. For a good explanation on this, take a look at this white paper on Checklist of Mandatory Documentation Required by ISO 14001:2015.

This creation of documents and records can be done internally by your company, or you can get help through hiring a consultant or purchasing standard documentation. To see samples of documentation, visit this free ISO 14001 downloads page.

Once all of the processes and procedures are in place, you will need to operate the EMS for a period of time. By doing this, you will be able to collect the records necessary to go to the next steps: auditing and reviewing your system and becoming certified.

Mandatory steps for finishing implementation and getting certified

After finishing all your documentation and implementing it, your organization also needs to perform these steps to ensure a successful certification:

Internal audit – The internal audit is in place for you to check your EMS processes. The goal is to ensure that records are in place to confirm compliance of the processes and to find problems and weaknesses that would otherwise stay hidden.  

Management review – A formal review by your management to evaluate the relevant facts about the management system processes in order to make appropriate decisions and assign resources.

Corrective actions  Following the internal audit and management review, you need to correct the root cause of any identified problems and document how they were resolved.

The company certification process is divided into two stages:

Stage One (documentation review) – The auditors from your chosen certification body will check to ensure your documentation meets the requirements of ISO 14001.

Stage Two (main audit) – Here, the certification body auditors will check whether your actual activities are compliant with both ISO 14001 and your own documentation by reviewing documents, records, and company practices.

If you’re looking for help with these stages, why not visit our free ISO 14001 virtual consultant Oscar the Owl?

What ISO 14001 training and certification are available if you’re an individual?

Training in the concepts of ISO 14001 is available, and there are a range of course options for individuals to choose from. Only the first of the courses mentioned below can lead to certification for the individual to be able to audit for a certification body, but the others are very useful for those who will be using these skills within their own company:

ISO 14001 Lead Auditor Course – This is a four- to five-day training course focused on understanding the ISO 14001 EMS standard and being able to use it for auditing management systems against these requirements. The course includes an exam at the end to verify knowledge and competence, and it is only with an accredited course that an individual can become approved to audit for a certification body.

ISO 14001 Internal Auditor Course – This is commonly a two- or three-day course that is based on the lead auditor course above, but does not include the test for competence, so this is most useful for someone beginning to do internal audits within a company.

ISO 14001 Awareness and Implementation Course – Several courses are offered that provide knowledge of ISO 14001 and how to implement it. These can be one- or two- or even five-day courses, and can even include online e-learning sessions as a method of teaching the material. These courses are good for those who need an overview on the ISO 14001 standard, or those who will be involved in the implementation within a company, and many are more economical than investing in the lead auditor course for those involved at this level.

There are a number of accredited training organizations around the world where you can gain individual qualifications in ISO 14001.

To learn more about ISO 14001 implementation, please visit our ISO 14001 Learning Center. You’ll find a host of helpful resources, including free ISO 14001 downloads.


Strahinja Stojanovic
ISO 14001 Expert

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