April 5th, 2010, by John Shideler

Two of the most successful International Standards of the last 25 years are ISO 9001 and ISO 14001. ISO 9001, a quality management system standard now used by more than one million organizations, first gave international prominence to the “systems approach” to management. It has become one of the all-time best-selling standards of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Its success helped launch ISO 14001, an environmental management system based on the “plan-do-check-act” virtuous cycle of policy-driven planning, managing to meet objectives, establishing operational control, and monitoring and measuring progress towards meeting identified objectives and targets. Several hundred thousand organizations around the world have adopted ISO 14001, usually as an enhancement of a quality management system which has the goal of managing processes for delivering quality goods and services and satisfying customers.

Fundamental to an environmental management system is the identification of the environmental aspects of an organization. These are the “elements of the organization’s activities, products and services that have or can have an impact on the environment,” whether adverse or beneficial. Identifying environmental aspects is key to the successful implementation of the management system, because it helps organizations proactively manage “those that can have a significant impact on the environment.”

Many early adopters of ISO 14001 environmental management systems reaped major benefits from their efforts. Energy efficiency, waste reduction, prevention of pollution, improved compliance with environmental legal requirements, all paid returns that contributed to the organizations’ bottom line while improving their standing among stakeholders, driving improvements through the supply chain, and augmenting workforce morale. Alas, the more the environmental management system standard became commonplace, the greater was the tendency of some later-adopting organizations to use the system as a regulatory compliance management tool and for little else.

In such cases, the true potential of the environmental management system is shortchanged. Properly implemented, ISO 14001-based systems should identify all environmental aspects that have the potential to create significant environmental impacts, whether they are currently regulated or not. Two prominent issues that fall in this category are water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

With the world population approaching seven billion, water scarcity is a growing concern. Organizations fortunate enough to be located in water-rich regions can ill afford to be complacent. Although “water wars” have not broken out recently in the United States, regions not normally considered water constrained have experienced some skirmishes. The contested northern boundary of the state of Georgia comes to mind, where claims of a flawed early nineteenth century survey that demarcated the boundary with Tennessee recently were raised. Why the sudden interest on behalf of the state of Georgia in a small strip of land that for nearly two centuries had been recognized as part of Tennessee? The explanation is access to the Tennessee River, which could have been tapped to relieve a drought that recently afflicted northern Georgia.

Another example is public opposition in Minnesota, the land of ten thousand lakes, to commercial development of the state’s water resources to feed an ever-expanding consumer thirst for bottled water. No thank you, say Minnesotans, who much prefer to keep their water for themselves.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is another issue that concerns many stakeholders. Regulation of greenhouse gas emissions is now occurring in California and has become an important consideration for the siting of new power plants across the country. For many companies, however, regulation of carbon dioxide is an issue for some time in the future, not today.

However, US companies ignore greenhouse gases at their peril. Aircraft operators landing in Europe or taking off from there face regulation from 2012 as part of an expanded European Union Emissions Trading System. This includes all US transatlantic carriers, and even some general aviation. France and other EU countries have proposed legislation that would mandate disclosure of the “carbon footprint” of products sold in that country from as early as January 2011. Imports from the US would be affected.

Identifying water consumption and greenhouse gases as potentially significant environmental aspects in an ISO 14001–based management system makes good business sense today, in advance of regulations. Doing so helps organizations take early actions to tackle critical issues before the mandates arrive.

© 2010, Futurepast: Inc.

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