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New ISO 14001 Is Knotty but Seems Viable

February 28, 2016

How prevalent the revised standard becomes may depend on what companies discover in their gap analyses.

Companies and other organizations seeking certification to the international environmental management system (EMS) standard ISO 14001 have three years from September 2015 to transition to the newly published version (see Ink Dries on ISO 14001 Revision, 3 June 2015). Most will probably need the help of a specialist consultant to interpret the complicated, much longer standard.

ISO dignitaries celebrated the arrival of ISO 14001:2015 in New Delhi at ceremonies hosted by the Bureau of Indian Standards. The original 14001 is marking its 20th anniversary having been published in 1996. According to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), about 324,000 third-party certifications are held around the world. The number has basically stabilized at that level. The actual situation is not known. 

 The German Environment Agency stopped chasing down the data in 2008 (see China Leads World in ISO 14001 Certifications, 12 November 2008). ISO’s own annual compilation since then is much less reliable. Its flaws add up to the fact that users cannot compare the changes in adoption year-on-year (see ISO 14001: Numbers Can’t Tell the Whole Story, 19 December 2013).

ISO’s survey still ranks China far in front with more than 100,000 certifications. No other countries even approach that range. The US has less than 7,000 organizations certified to the EMS. The staggering number of accreditations issued by registrars raised questions from the outset how robust the 14001 practice really is among companies in China. The answer is still not forthcoming. 

About the new version

“ISO 14001 has fulfilled many of the dreams we foresaw over the last 20 years, including helping people to manage all their environmental issues in a holistic manner,” says Anne-Marie Warris, chair of ISO/TC 207/SC1, the technical committee that developed the standard and undertook the revision.

Warris became a climate change and emissions trading specialist in the marine industry while working for Lloyd’s Register Group. She says, “Looking forward, the new version will help with a stronger integration between environmental issues and an organization's strategic action planning and thinking.”

Numbers on the order of 121 experts hailing from 70 participating countries and 18 observer nations debated the terms and provisions. The final solutions reflect the views put forward by the most voluble delegations, including the US. For two decades the representatives to TC207 have held off repeated attempts to transgress the presumptive boundary between public policy fit for government action and measures voluntarily undertaken private organizations and industry (see New Voices Heard on Revisions for ISO 14001, 26 October 1998) The work on the latest version is no different.

One crucially controversial point is the introduction of a new term “risk” (see Risk Delays ISO 14001 Update, 1 April 2015). The concept as finally written applies to the intended outcomes of the EMS. The organization must determine the risks and opportunities that can affect its ability to achieve the objectives of its EMS, prevent or reduce undesired effects, or achieve continual improvement. “Risk” as used in the document does not pertain to risks to the environment, which was the initial fear. 

Through past revisions of the standard the term “continual improvement” relates to the progress of the EMS — not to improvement in a facility’s environmental performance. This led to bitter disappointment on the part of participating non-governmental organizations and a number of regulatory agencies as well. The commitment is somewhat murky in ISO 14001:2015. The continual improvement of the EMS is intended to enhance the environmental performance of the organization. But in the final analysis the situation remains the same as it was before.


The language on external communications is more extensive in the new version. Again, nothing has changed. The organization is still in charge.  It decides what to report, when, and to whom.


ISO 14001:2015 presents some new measures for organizations to include in the EMS. The exact influence one, in particular, will have is difficult to predict. Not only are procedures called for relating to goods and services, but the organization shall define how “outsourced processes” are to be controlled or influenced within the EMS. Among other things, an outsourced process is one needed for the EMS to achieve the intended outcomes. It is something integral to the organization’s functions, for example, interested parties perceive it as being carried out by the organization. 

Though perhaps an oversimplification, ISO 14001:2004 was intuitive at the margins. Environmental managers could expect to — and many did — interpret and implement the standard effectively using their own resources. That looks nearly impossible for ISO 14001:2015. Experts who understand the intentions of the drafters can interpret the clauses accurately. They will be in demand. 

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