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Is ISO 14001 Certification Still Relevant?

<p>The forerunner of many of today's environmental standards, the ISO 14001 environmental management certification suffers from a widespread perception that it simply provides cover for polluters. What does certifcation really mean today?</p>

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.

That said, certification is not a bad step. Any business that has taken the steps -- and they can be exhaustive -- of deploying an ISO 14001-conformant environmental management system and achieved certification is worthy of applause. Like 9001, it can be difficult to attain and maintain, and requires ongoing adherence to nuanced requirements through detailed documentation as well as the actualization of processes and procedures described within the associated documentation.

But the perception ISO 14001 certification cultivates -- the notion a certified organization is environmentally responsible -- is at odds with the fact a certified business might not actually be doing much to improve environmental performance.

An ISO 14001-conformant organization does not an environmentally responsible organization make.

As the cynic mentioned earlier might have elaborated, an ISO 14001-registered power plant can emit excessive air pollutants and discharge vast quantities of toxic wastewater, as long as the emissions and discharges are well measured and described.

So there's a discrepancy between what ISO 14001 implies, and what it actually does.

Given the fact many organizations invest in ISO 14001 certification simply to improve brand image -- that is, to boost the perception among stakeholders and the public at large it is committed to "green" business -- questions surrounding what certification actually means ought to arise: Are we improving environmental performance? Are we minimizing our negative environmental impacts? Are we green?

And the short answer is no. Certification does not mean anything without a commitment to the principles of continuous improvement and environmental stewardship. And these are cultural elements that go far beyond what any specifications standard can describe.

However, ISO 14001 can be thought of as an excellent foundation for the "house" of an environmental program that leverages environmental metrics and KPIs to track, measure and analyze performance. In tandem, an ISO 14001 environmental management system with real-time environmental key performance indicators is a powerful combination.

Recall the term so central to quality guru W. Edwards Deming, a man who essentially fostered the whole premise behind quality management: Continuous Improvement. While it is bandied about all too often these days, the term describes something that is essential to all business operations: the simple fact that performance on all fronts ought to be improved, continuously.

Just as ISO 14001 was modeled after ISO 9001 -- a certification to which "continuous improvement" is such a central theme -- consider that it carries the same onus: Those who achieve ISO 14001 certification, those who monitor and measure the environmental impacts of their activities, are bound to the spirit of continuous improvement.

"Spirit" is the operative word there, for while many organizations will secure ISO 14001 certification, many will present their certificate as a totem of their respect for the environment. Some, however, will actually honour the spirit of the standard and commit to continuously improving environmental performance: to minimizing negative impacts on the water we drink and the air we breathe.

Photo CC-licensed by A. Strakey.

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