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New Bottom Line Volume 4.19 – ISO 14000: The Next Horizon in Environmental Management

September 26, 1995

If your eyes are focused on the US Congress, as it continues its headlong rush to dismantle 30 years of environmental regulations (along with as much of the rest of the federal government as it can manage), you may be missing the future of environmental management–and the future of your business.

Any company that hopes to be competitive on the world stage, and certainly any company that plans to trade with Europe & Japan, would do well to heed the parallel trend toward what one wag has called “private regulation” — non-regulatory, and often non-governmental, attempts to bring order to markets through voluntary compliance with common standards. It takes various forms that go beyond the individual environmental initiatives that many companies have undertaken. One example is voluntary government programs like Green Lights and ClimateWise (see NBL 3.14 & 15). Another is the many companies that are using their procurement programs to systematically extend their own environmental standards up their supply chain (NBL 3.20), recognizing that they can’t vouch for their own products environmental quality if they can’t vouch for their suppliers’ environmental quality.

Most important, though still little known in US, is the emerging “ISO 14000,” a series of environmental standards being developed by ISO, the International Standards Organization. ISO 9000, the international quality standard, has provided a shortcut to quality assurance–since a company can rely on ISO certification to confirm a vendor’s product quality, rather than conduct its own vendor audits. Similarly, ISO 14000 will enable both companies and consumers to know that a company, product or process meets international expectations for environmental quality, without having to do all the detective work themselves.

“Although ISO 14000 will be a voluntary standard,” write Stuart Auchincloss and Andrew N. Davis in the Connecticut Environmental Compliance Update (December 1994), “those companies that want to trade, for example, in the EU, or to do business with other companies that do trade in the EU, will be required to demonstrate adherence to the standard because the EU will likely adopt the ISO 14000 standard as conforming to its environmental management directive. ”

ISO 14000 is actually a series of standards: Environmental Management Systems; Environmental Auditing (including principles, procedures, and auditor qualifications); Environmental Performance; Life Cycle Analysis; Environmental Labeling; and Environmental Aspects in Product Standards.

The EMS and Environmental Auditing drafts were elevated to international draft standard stage in June, and final standards may be formally issued as soon as July 1996. In the interim, many companies are redesigning their environmental management systems around EMAS (the European Union’s Eco-Management and Audit Scheme that took effect in April 1995) and the British environmental standard BS 7750, on the assumption that certification in these standards will provide a shortcut to ISO 14000 certification.

While larger companies have been the early adopters, smaller companies will be affected by ISO 14000 too. “For some companies,” as Auchincloss and Davis note, “registration under ISO 14000 may be a legal prerequisite to enter the regulated EU market, while others may be asked by the purchasers of their products or services to be registered.”

What can your company do, while waiting for the ISO 1400 standards to emerge?

Get your eye on the ball. Don’t be distracted by short term national politics; there is a larger and more durable trend moving steadily in another direction.

Get informed. A small industry of seminars and newsletters is making its appearance (in addition to World Wide Web sites) to keep tabs on progress and practices.

Get on board. Make the decision now to move your company in the direction of qualifying.

Get systematic. Environmental programs are no longer enough; your company will need an environmental management system, whether for ISO certification on in their own right.

Get your employees educated. The more your people–top to bottom–understand about the environmental impacts of their actions, the more they can contribute to a process of continual improvement.

Get ahead of the curve. Environmental quality and efficiency are good for business now, so don’t wait for the standards; clarify your environmental goals, strengthen environmental management systems, integrate them with overall management systems, and position your company to remain competitive on the new international trading landscape.

(This might also be a good time to drop a note to your elected representatives. Let them know that while streamlining regulatory bureaucracy is long overdue, “reforms” that move industry away from international trading standards for environmental quality are actually the last thing business needs.)

(c) 1995 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

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