My first exposure to ISO 14001 was characterized by the words of a cynic and skeptic of the value of the global standard for environmental management.
"What does it mean to be certified?" he said, repeating my question rhetorically. "It means you can pollute to the ends of the earth, as long as it is well documented."
Needless to say, the statement was a sarcastic hyperbole, since any polluter is at least held to account on legal and regulatory thresholds that affect the jurisdiction they operate within. But his remark highlighted a widespread perception of ISO 14001: Although it is capable of giving businesses a clear sense of where they're at in terms of environmental performance, no intrinsic "moral compass" of environmental responsibility is built into the standard.
Launched 15 years ago as a guideline for measuring and monitoring organizational activities that impact the environment, the ISO 14001 standard is today a widespread benchmark for thousands of organizations around the world that want to communicate to the public and stakeholders that they are environmentally responsible.
While a paltry 14,000 certifications were registered in 1999, the year the standard was launched, more than a quarter-million organizations are certified today.
In fact, the popularity of ISO 14001 has been so prolific the standard has achieved nearly the same notoriety and respect as its parent, ISO 9001, the go-to standard for organizations that want to communicate their commitment to quality management.
The latter standard essentially shaped the former (both were developed by the International Organization of Standardization) and the form and structural core of the two standards is fundamentally the same: Where an ISO 9001-conformant organization will retain the documentation supporting procedures and processes that impact product quality, ISO 14001-conformant organizations will retain documentation on procedures and processes that involve any sort of impact on the environment.
Think air, water use, wastewater output, energy use: essentially any aspect of business that can generate impacts upon the environment around us.
The widespread adoption rates and respect ISO 9001 achieved in the late '90s in many ways spelled the inevitable success of ISO 14001 as a widely sought-after standard. And while many prized the standard for the simple fact it mirrored the structure and form of ISO 9001, others criticized it on that very basis.
And therein lies the rub.
For just as ISO 9001-conformant procedures and processes do not guarantee high-quality products and performance, by virtue of its very implementation an ISO 14001 environmental management system in no way guarantees an organization is committed to improving environmental performance, nor does it provably suggest an organization is proactive and responsible in any of its environmental endeavors.