Understanding ISO: ISO 14001 Environmental Management

What does it mean?

Having worked as a lead auditor for some big certification bodies, including BM Trada and NQA, I noticed many ISO 14001 systems were implemented by individuals who were primarily quality consultants. These systems are often good enough to achieve UKAS certification, but do not maximise value for the organisation because the consultant is not a sustainability professional. Totem Sustainability is a business consultancy at heart, focussing on sustainability but with a deep understanding of quality as a base from which to build. We apply both standards to our own business, so you know you’re getting the best management system for your organisation and advice from experience, maximising value and minimising your environmental impact while aligning with your organisational objectives. This post looks at ISO 14001 and what it can do for your organisation.

ISO 14001: Environmental Management Systems

Environmental issues have been on the global agenda since the 1970s, and while their perceived importance has waxed and waned over the years, they are most definitely back at the top of the agenda for the foreseeable future. Notable examples are single use plastics, the UK Government commitment to achieving Net Zero Carbon by 2050, responsible sourcing of materials (such as timber), and reduction/recycling of waste. How is this relevant to your organisation? We believe the following are the three key benefits to gaining ISO 14001 certification:

1. Efficiency: Producing more using less reduces the demand on natural resources including energy, water and raw materials.

2. Marketing: Environmental management produces good news stories which can be used to promote your organisation and develop a competitive advantage.

3. Customer Satisfaction: Customers will feel good about using an environmentally conscious business, increasing the chances of repeat business and referrals.

When tendering for contracts, many organisations are now giving preference to organisations who have ISO 14001. Typical examples of industries where this is becoming increasingly common include automotive, aeronautical, construction and property development, healthcare, food and government bodies. Even if these don’t apply to your organisation, it simply gives you an advantage over competitors who don’t have ISO 14001 certification. You’ll never lose a contract for being too sustainable, but you might be excluded for not being sustainable enough, and ISO 14001 is one way to demonstrate your credentials.

How does ISO 14001 help efficiency, marketing and customer satisfaction?

All ISO standards are now developed following a consistent framework called Annex SL. This breaks the standard down into key areas around which requirements relevant to the objective of the standards are developed. For ISO 14001, the sections can be summarised as follows:

Context of the Organisation

Understand your business better. The first step in making any improvement in life is always to understand your current situation. In this section you’re expected to define the scope of your management system, what’s going to be covered and where. You’ll also look at issue affecting your organisation and the interested parties which can influence you. You can then plan, appropriately, what needs improvement and how best to achieve it. It also leads to an improved knowledge of customers, your market and your organisational aspirations, creating the foundations from which to start your environmental journey.


Imagine you are a pilot flying a plane. You can control the plane, but you don’t know if the runway is clear, how much other flight traffic there is or if your gate is free. All this information comes from the control tower. The control tower doesn’t need to know how to fly the plane, but everyone can do their job better if there is good communication between the two. It’s no different for a management system. In many organisations the management systems are run by directors, but in others an individual is appointed to run the management system on the behalf of top management. In these situations, it is critically important that the top management are engaged with the management system to ensure it is serving their strategy and vision. If the control tower isn’t communicating well with the plane it might land on the wrong runway.

The standard requires top management to be involved in external audits (in part, often by attending the opening meeting and demonstrating through interview that they communicate appropriate information for the effective implementation of the management system) and for the organisation to have policies which demonstrate the top management commitment to the standards ongoing implementation.


Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. This simple saying is so true and sums up the planning section of ISO standards. For ISO 14001, this begins with understanding your environmental aspects and impacts. These are the ways in which your organisation impacts the environment that you interact with. It could include air quality, emissions, carbon, water discharges and noise, but also people such as employees and neighbours. Then you must consider your environmental obligations, as a minimum these are your legal obligations, but they could also include voluntary or contractual requirements.

Next you assess the environmental risks to your organisation, considering the above information, and plan how to address them if they come to pass. However, it goes further by prompting you to think about, document and track opportunities too, so your organisation can maximise their positive environmental impact.

All this information is then used to develop the organisations environmental objectives. We suggest these are structured similarly to SMART(ER) targets and can be used to monitor the performance of the organisations management system and tied into marketing messaging.


This section primarily focusses on your people because much of environmental management is dependent on people understanding the issues and knowing what to do to minimise impact. It looks at the competence of the people affecting your organisations environmental performance, how you are raising awareness, and what you are communicating. Finally, it requires that you determine what information you need to keep documented.


By now you should have a good understanding of how your organisation impacts the environment, so now you are ready to develop ways to minimise this. The standard breaks this down into two categories: operational and emergency. The operational section expects you to plan how you will mitigate the risks and impacts you have identified earlier in your management system, by integrating actions into your operations. The emergency section expects you to consider how you would respond in an emergency situation which could have environmental implications such as a fuel spill, flood or fire.

In previous versions of the standard you were required to create documented procedures. While this is no longer required, we still recommend this as the best way to document your operations. This may be in a simple written procedure or a flow diagram, or both. Whatever is best for your organisation. Documenting this sets out how you expect your employees to deliver your products and/or services while minimising their environmental impact. It also

provides opportunities to build in performance measurement which can be incorporated into appraisals and business performance reviews.

Performance Evaluation

How do you know what you are doing is working if you don’t measure it? The standard requires organisations to approach this on three fronts:

Monitoring, measurement, analysis and evaluation: Most commonly this means collecting data and reporting on your energy use, water consumption and waste production and recycling rates.

Auditing involves formally reviewing how procedures are being implemented to ensure they are fit for purpose and/or they are being followed.

Management Review gets all the individuals responsible for the management and implementation of the management system to discuss what is working, what isn’t and how the system can be improved.

These actions help you to either confirm what you are doing is working and helping your business grow, or identify that it is not working and prompt you to change your approach. Without evaluating your performance you might not change until it is too late, or miss out on new opportunities.


Finally, the standard wraps up with a section called improvement. This is effectively the intended output of the standard, all the previous sections are setting your organisation up to help you improve. This is described on two fronts. Firstly, ensuring that any nonconformities are addressed and corrected, and corrective actions implemented to minimise the possibility of the same nonconformity occurring again. Secondly, that the organisation shall continually improve, meaning that it will constantly seek new ways to improve the suitability, adequacy and effectiveness of their management system.

Interested in ISO 14001?

We hope this summary of ISO 14001 Quality Management Systems helps you better understand the intended purpose of the standard, and the expectations of your organisation if you choose to pursue certification. If you need any help with implementation, we’d love to hear from you, we have a range of packages and implementation options to suit your needs.

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