ISO 14000

A Bridge to the Environmental Community?

Presentation of Randy Kritkausky, President of ECOLOGIA
At "Energy Week Conference and Exhibition- PetroSafe Symposium"
"Environmental Issues: Future Trends in Corporate Environmental Management" Workshop
Houston, Texas, January 28, 1997

Thank you for the opportunity to present a perspective from the environmental community, on the issue of emerging trends in corporate environmental management. When I refer to the "environmental community" I include: a broad cross-section of the public that is generally concerned with air and water quality, those who are more concerned and belong to voluntary local citizens' organizations focused upon issues of nature protection and environmental health, and finally specialized environmental organizations composed of full time professionals such as the Sierra Club or my own organization, ECOLOGIA. The environmental community is a major stakeholder in environmental decision making. Without support from the environmental community, new initiatives such as ISO 14001 are unlikely to succeed.

I approach the topic of using ISO 14001 to build a bridge to the environmental community from my perspective, which for the last fifteen years has been to inform, and thereby strengthen, the position of environmental NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) in the practice of environmental decision making. I began my environmental career working at the grassroots level in rural northeastern Pennsylvania on solid waste issues. This experience made me aware of problems surrounding the enforcement of environmental regulations. Later, I became the .president of a large regional environmental organization. This experience made me aware of the role that public opinion plays in environmental decision making by government and industry. In time , I developed a good relationship with local and regional officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. This allowed me to appreciate the difficulties of their work.

For the past eight years, as President of ECOLOGIA, I have worked with our staff in Moscow, Russia; Vilnius, Lithuania; and Minsk, Belarus to assist environmental NGOs, scientists and public officials in more than fifteen countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the Baltics, and the Former Soviet Union. My colleagues face extraordinary problems as they attempt to reconstruct their economies, political systems, and social systems while mending an environment that was abused for fifty to seventy years. ECOLOGIA's work has been supported largely by private foundations and by U.S. government contracts, and occasionally by corporate contracts. For the last two years I have played an active role in the formation of the National Institute for Environmental Renewal; I serve on its Industry Management Team where I work closely with former multinational defense contractors and local businesses to apply emerging technologies to environmental management and pollution prevention, monitoring and control.

The following comments reflect both my grassroots experience in the United States and my international experience.

The creation of ISO 14000, particularly ISO 14001, first caught my attention two years ago since it appeared to present an opportunity for industries in societies with a Soviet history to comply with western demands for improved environmental management. For the last year, an ECOLOGIA board member has represented our organization on the ISO 14031 SubTAG (Technical Advisory Group). As a result, we have become involved in the domestic debate surrounding ISO 14000 and the U.S. environmental community.

Can ISO 14001 become a bridge to the environmental community? My answer is yes, if the following issues can be addressed and resolved.

(1) There must be a clear and accurate image of ISO 14001 which does not oversell it to industry, and does not unnecessarily alarm those in the environmental community.

ISO 14001 must be presented to the public for what it is and was it intended to be:

  • as a minimum standard of environmental management which would level the playing field internationally
  • as an addition to the existing U.S. regulatory system, providing flexibility for corporations as they seek to improve environmental performance

    ISO 14001 should not be represented as a substitute for the existing environmental regulatory system. For the many who are informed about what ISO 14001 is, this concern may appear misplaced as ISO 14001 was not intended to be substituted for existing environmental regulations. However, in a world where perceptions are often more important than realities, it is important to understand that this is the concern of the environmental community. It is a concern which is fed by state level officials, such as those in my own home state of Pennsylvania, who have declared that ISO 14000 would in fact ideally replace most or all regulations.

    Pennsylvania's Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection stated:

    "A company that registers to ISO 14001 should never see a regulator again"
    September 14, 1995

    James Seif's statement, combined with EPA's recent critical assessment of Pennsylvania's environmental enforcement record as one of the weakest in the nation, a report featured in a front page article in The New York Times, confirmed many of the worst fears of those in the environmental community: that twenty years of environmental progress is being abandoned and ISO 14001 is part of the abandonment process.

    These events were a turning point for ISO 14001 and for environmental management in Pennsylvania. James Seif and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection have backed off from this statement about ISO 14001, due to an internal departmental reassessment of what ISO 14001 can actually deliver, and also because of criticism from the environmental community in Pennsylvania. Last Friday, I called the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and asked them for their current position on ISO 14001. The following statement was faxed to me:

    "The Department believes that ISO 14000 is one of several tools to establish a Strategic Management System system as an alternative to, and a positive step away from, the current "command and control" approach to environmental protection, and toward a market driven, voluntary zero emission goal. However, the Department also believes that ISO 14000, alone, may not be sufficient to achieve this goal or even to achieve results sufficient to trigger regulatory flexibility. It is DEP's view that adoption of a Strategic Management system that strives for zero emissions over time and is developed in consultation with local community interests can lead to significant performance beyond regulatory compliance while providing maximum savings and flexibility to businesses and local governments. Documentation of emissions reduction should be requisites for any Potential regulatory flexibility, or "dual compliance tracks" initiatives in Pennsylvania, not attainment of ISO 14001 certification." (emphasis added by presenter.)

    If ISO 14001 is to be a bridge to, the environmental community, and if ISO 14001 is to gain the public acceptance it needs to succeed, a true, accurate, and consistent image of ISO 14001 needs to be presented to the public. Misconceptions need to be cleared up.

    ECOLOGIA is currently designing a project to provide information on ISO 14001 to the environmentally concerned public through training seminars and by posting information on our world wide web site, E-TIP. We believe that an independent international NGO like ECOLOGIA can best approach other NGOs with credible information.

    (2) My second concern: the Environmental Community needs to be much more involved in the creation of ISO 14001, in providing feedback on its implementation, and in revising ISO 14001.

    ISO 14001 has been developed with very little participation from the environmental community. There are several reasons for this:
    a. lack of resources in the NGO community for travel and staff expenses
    b. misunderstandings about what ISO 14001 is have resulted in a hands off attitude for many
    c. NGOs are not familiar with, and probably are not yet comfortable with, the TAG-SubTAG meeting process

    If ISO 14001 is to be a bridge to the environmental community, what is needed is more participation by NGOs in the ISO 14000 development process, active involvement of NGOs in providing feedback on the implementation of ISO 14001, and increased involvement in the revision of ISO 14001.

    ECOLOGIA is currently working on projects to facilitate NGO participation in these processes.

    (3) Third, there needs to be more meaningful public participation built into ISO 14001.

    ISO 14001 is not going to gain public acceptance when it is weak on public participation and information dissemination. It is as if the drafters of the ISO 14001 standards have -ignored or forgotten everything that has been learned about the role of public involvement and effective community relations over the last 20 years.

    There currently exists a major problem: the emphasis on voluntary sharing of information with communities affected by ISO certified industries is a cause for alarm in the environmental community. ISO 14001 only requires that certified industries have a plan for public outreach. The plan can be meaningless. In this regard, ISO 14001 standards represent a giant step backward from existing legal guarantees of access to information such as the Toxic Release Inventory. This is a primary source of NGO opposition in the U.S. The concern is also serious overseas. Lack of meaningful public involvement and information sharing was a major factor in the rejection of ISO 14001 in Ireland, not just because it did not satisfy NGOs, but because it did not conform with European Union standards for public involvement in environmental decision making.

    If ISO 14001 is to be a bridge to the environmental community, what is minimally needed is compliance with existing norms of public involvement. But better yet, ISO 14001 certified industries should take advantage of emerging technologies which could increase public access to information while reducing data collection and dissemination costs. Recent advances in remote sensing, real time monitoring, and computer technology allow industry to provide more and better information both to regulatory agencies and to the public. This should be done now, voluntarily, in the early implementation stages of ISO 14001.

    (4) ISO 14001 is still a work in progress. It needs to prove itself.

    In fact, ISO 14001 is unproven. ISO 14001 needs some success stories, not just successes for corporations and government regulators, but clearly demonstrable environmental improvements. As the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection noted, we need to see real and significant reductions in emissions.

    If ISO 14001 is to be a bridge to the environmental community, what is needed is a series of innovative industry - community partnerships which demonstrate that ISO 14001 can deliver on its promise. These early partnerships also need to demonstrate that ISO 14001's extraordinary flexibility can be used to improve upon the minimum standards. Voluntary compliance should not be an opportunity to do as little as possible; it is an opportunity to do what is the interest of the community with as little encumbrance a$ possible.

    (5) ISO 14001, needs to be understood as part of a regulation and enforcement system, not as a sea change toward a nearly absolutely voluntary compliance system.

    Voluntary systems are ideal. An unregulated free market economy is an ideal,. But as James Madison noted, only if men were angels would government not be needed. I am not an advocate of massive and restrictive government regulations. I have been working in countries of the Former Soviet Union for the last eight years and I know that more regulation is not healthy for the environment or the economy, not to mention the human soul. But, somewhere between over-regulation and purely voluntary compliance, there is an appropriate balance. If ISO 14001 could become a tool to restore that balance to the environmental sector, wonderful. But it should not become a tool for those who would greatly weaken environmental laws and enforcement.

    If ISO 14001 is to be a bridge to the environmental community, the, discussion of ISO 14001 needs to be conducted in very practical and result oriented terms. This discussion needs to be separated from and released from claims made by ideological extremists on both ends of the ideological continuum currently debating whether more or less government is better.

    Please understand that I am not suggesting that ISO 14001 has no connection with this current national, actually international, debate over the role of government regulation. I am just warning that bridge building between divergent communities is impossible when one side presents ISO 14001 as an opportunity to escape government environmental regulation and the other side responds by spreading fears that industry is going to use ISO 14001 to avoid compliance with existing laws and treaties.

    (6) Finally, viewed from the domestic perspective, ISO 14001 needs to become identified with and build upon its forward thinking concepts, such as product life cycle analysis and standardizing international environmental management practices rather than its regressive concepts, such as minimizing public information.

    Here I would like to address ISO 14000 from an international perspective.

    International Concerns and Opportunities for ISO 14001

    It is in the international arena that ISO 14001 has the greatest potential to make an immediate positive impact. It is most likely to be received positively by international environmental NGOs. Consequently the opportunity for bridge building may be greatest here. Here are the opportunities and challenges as I see them:

    Leveling the playing field. ISO 14001 is a potentially valuable tool for equalizing unfair trade advantages with companies that function in countries where there are few or no functioning environmental regulations.

    Here is a fantastic opportunity for bridge building with the environmental community in foreign countries; both U.S. industry and foreign environmental organizations share an interest in seeing companies in emerging nations come into in compliance with minimal international standards. Both could cooperate in compliance audits.

    ISO 14001 flexibility, allowing industry to set its own environmental management and pollution reduction goals, is attractive to companies in emerging nations.

    Let me give you a concrete example. In August 1996, ECOLOGIA hosted twenty representatives of various organizations in Ukraine (industry, government, academia, and environmental NGOs) for a two week training program on environmental management in Pennsylvania. We introduced ISO 14001. to them and they went away enthused. They immediately understood that this process would allow them to document environmental management progress needed for international bank loans, and they were relieved to know that it would allow them to invest very scarce resources into technologies that would address environmental problems that they knew were a priority. Their previous experience was that they might be forced to spend millions on technology that would yield little in terms of emission reductions or health benefits.

    ISO 14001 flexibility may allow industry in developing countries to simultaneously achieve emissions reductions and economic benefits.

    In former Soviet societies, more efficient production, less wasteful production, can be used to reduce pollution. For much of the foreseeable future, many industries can minimize negative environmental impacts by simply becoming less wasteful. The Russian oil industry, which is estimated to loose at least ten percent of its production in pipeline leaks, is a perfect example. The issue of tradeoffs between environmental improvement and economic development, which we face in our context of diminishing returns, simply is often not an issue in these societies. For perhaps a decade, some industry in developing nations can become more productive while it becomes less polluting. So, ISO 14001 requirements will be more acceptable, less onerous, there. But in more advanced societies where many of the easy solutions to environmental problems have already been implemented, many necessary environmental improvements from the public health perspective may bring no economic benefit to corporations. Voluntarism may not work as effectively in the industrialized west.

    Finally, I must return to the public participation issue. In countries With a Soviet history, (Central or Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union), many of the democratic and economic reform movements of the late 1980s and early 90s began under the environmental banner. Environmental activism was the most common career path to develop democratic decision making skills . Environmental conditions and problems united intimidated populations and forced them to risk persecution to save their lives and those of their children. Environmentally concerned citizens in these societies will not accept ISO 14000 if it does not support their struggle to open up closed societies. These countries provide a golden opportunity to demonstrate ISO 14000. But it will not take root if it is viewed as an effort by western industrialists to undercut their hard won freedoms, specifically the right to know what factories are discharging into the air and water.

    ISO may be a bridge to the environmental community, but it is a bridge under construction. In fact it is like a suspension bridge constructed from two sides. It must meet in the middle if it is to endure; it cannot be built from one side alone. From this engineer's perspective, the cables which are supporting the bridge's load are currently inadequate, particularly in the area of public participation. Like the first suspension bridges built in this country, ISO 14000 risks coming down when the first real storms test its strength. But, it's not too late to make some design changes and to reinforce the structure.