Environmental Management

Should Industry Adopt the ISO 14001 Standard?

A Review by Alyssa Deutschler, ECOLOGIA

In August, 1998 ECOLOGIA received an article on ISO 14000 written by two Canadians: Olivier Boiral, who holds a Ph.D. in environmental management; and Jean-Marie Sala, director of environmental affairs at Alcan Smelters & Chemicals Ltd. in Quebec. The article, entitled "Environmental Management: Should Industry Adopt ISO 14001 Standard?" takes a critical look at ISO 14001 certification and advocates for selective implementation of the ISO standard. The article was originally published in Business Horizons (Indiana University Graduate School of Business/JAI Press; January-February, vol. 41, no.1, pp. 57-64).

Sala and Boiral's article is based on a study conducted in 1996 at Alcan Smelters & Chemicals Ltd. (AS&C), one of the world's leading producers of aluminum. A series of approximately 80 interviews with management staff at AS&C revealed that, while management perceived ISO 14001 certification as providing high standards for environmental compliance and being beneficial to the company's corporate image, those interviewed were uncertain as to whether ISO 14001 compliance would ultimately improve the company's environmental performance.

Beginning in the early 1990s, AS&C began implementing an environmental management system that emphasized preventative measures and behavioral changes (such as greater employee empowerment/responsibility and training) to reduce output of pollutants over expensive technological improvements. The results of this policy shift were positive and cost-effective: at one AS&C facility, atmospheric emissions of dust and fluorides were reduced by 35% over a period of four years. This reduction was achieved without a major investment in technological changes, but rather, through greater employee involvement and closer conformance to standard operating procedures.

A year prior to the official launching of ISO 14000, AS&C conducted a comparative audit of the EMS used at each of the company's facilities and ISO 14001 standards and surveyed environmental staff regarding the ISO standards. Sala and Boiral describe the results as mixed:

Managers of certain units feel that ISO 14001 corresponds closely to their needs. Others believe that implementation would do nothing to enhance environmental performance, while considerably increasing red tape. It is interesting to note that, generally speaking, the facilities that appear to have achieved the greatest progress in implementing participative management and creating a climate of trust and team spirit ... are also those at which management and employees are most critical of the ISO 14001 requirements. Ironically, these are also the facilities that have chalked up the greatest successes in reducing waste and pollution.
Arguments in support of adopting ISO 14001 fell into three categories: positive opinion of the management system proposed by the standard; belief that the system would allow greater control of employee behavior (e.g. greater compliance with operating procedures and rules); and belief that adopting the standard would result in future socioeconomic benefits (such as giving AS&C an edge over non-ISO certified competitors or heightened corporate image). It should be noted that few of the ISO 14001 supporters argued that certification would lead to improvements in environmental quality.

Those arguing against ISO 14001 were critical of the standard's effectiveness in improving an industry's environmental performance; i.e. reducing pollution of the environment. Boiral and Sala cite the following as the primary arguments from AS&C staff against ISO 14001:

1) The standard is ambiguous. "ISO 14001 does not enumerate the criteria for a 'good' environmental performance, which remains an 'elusive concept, not easily defined or measured'. (Lober, 1996)."

2) Adhering to ISO 14001 standard would not bring about significant performance improvements. "Certain AS&C facilities, such as Grande-Baie Works, have already achieved a very low level of discharges to the environment. ...According to Grande-Baie management...the ISO 14001 system would not bring about any significant additional improvements. Certain managers even feel that the continual improvement policy required under the standard would mean spiraling outlays for ever-tinier reductions in discharges of contaminants."

3) The standard involves too much bureaucratic red tape and paperwork. "As the person in charge of environmental questions at one ASK plant pointed out, 'Paperwork doesn't generate progress.' Managers at various high-performance facilities even feel that the scope of the documentation required by the standard is aimed more at making things easier for system auditors than at improving environmental management."

4) ISO 14001 structure contradicts modern management principles. "The proposed EMS is clearly 'top-down.' Nowhere does ISO 14001 encourage companies to promote employee involvement or consult workers about environmental issues--despite the fact that contemporary corporate management , including that at AS&C, is moving increasingly toward individual empowerment and flexible structures...Many AS&C facility managers who have succeeded in creating a climate of trust at their plants fear that implementation of the new standard will mean increased bureaucracy and control, leading ultimately to results opposite to the stated objectives."

5) Implementation of ISO 14001 will cost too much and force companies to rely on outside consultants. "According to some managers, these expenses [for auditors and for additional required staff training] will not necessarily mean reduced pollution, a better corporate image or new contracts. ...ISO 14001 and the certification process tend to appear as 'management gadgets,' and the need to call on consultants to develop external environmental audits and work toward certification underlines the commercial nature of the standard."

Based on their study of AS&C, Boiral and Sala recommend a rational, selective approach to ISO 14001. They advocate that organizations take the time to accurately evaluate whether implementing the standard would improve their environmental performance and whether the ISO standards correspond to their industry's needs. The authors also advise that companies look at their facility's "management culture" and how the more rigid, hierarchical structure of ISO 14001 would affect this culture, noting that "implementation of an EMS implies more than just changes in the area of environmental affairs." Employee acceptance and involvement in the implementation of the standard are also viewed by the authors as crucial to effective ISO 14001 compliance.

Finally, Sala and Boiral conclude that organizations should integrate the parts of the ISO 14001 standard that best correspond to their industry's needs or address weaknesses in their current EMS. Most of the AS&C facilities participating in the study ultimately chose to gradually implement selective portions of the standard and thus, reduce costs and strains on staff. Gradual implementation allows time for management to evaluate the standard's effectiveness, to see whether it favorably impacts the industry's environmental performance and to possibly adapt an existing EMS to resemble the ISO standards.

The authors end their essay with a reminder that ISO certification should ultimately be about improving the environment:

Regardless of the strategy a company adopts with respect to ISO 14001, the standard has to be considered as a tool, not as an end in itself. Certification may be seen as a sort of 'diploma' earned after preparatory work and a final examination (i.e. the certification audit). Intensive 'cramming' - preparation aimed solely at obtaining certification - is inappropriate. To be truly useful, environmental management has to be result driven, with the goal being the improvement of the natural environment for the benefit of today's population and generations to come.