ISO 14000

Will NGO Environmental Groups be Involved in Setting Global Industrial Standards?

By Ed Shoener

Ed Shoener is a member of the Board of Directors of ECOLOGIA; he is an environmental consultant currently working in the United States and in the Baltics. This article was first published in ECOLOGIA Newsletter, Issue # 38, January / February 1996.
Multi-national corporations are preparing. National governments are preparing. Global environmental management standards are now being developed. Some have been recently adopted; many more are under development. Will environmental NGOs be at the negotiating table while these decisions are taking place?

"ISO" stands for the International Standardization Organization, based in Geneva Switzerland. The ISO is a non-governmental international organization that has sought to reach international consensus on technical and safety standards for many different types of products, such as electrical components and boilers. More recently it has moved into management practices, such as the ISO 9000 standards that measure the quality control practices of an organization's production processes. Under current European Union requirements, many products cannot be sold in the EU unless the manufacturer has a certification that the product was produced according to ISO 9000 quality control standards. Thus, compliance with the ISO 14000 environmental standards may also become a requirement for trading with many countries.

The ISO 14000 series of standards will be used to evaluate an organization's environmental management practice and systems. There will be a variety of standards, on different activities. ISO 14001 is the Core Element, and will likely become the first standard to become mandatory. It requires companies to document and implement their company's environmental policies by monitoring: (1) the environmental impact of their activities, products and services; (2) compliance with national environmental laws; (3) processes for training their employees; (4) procedures to monitor and measure their environmental performance, and (5) their plans for top management review of the company's environmental performance.

All of this activity right now would be internal company-generated documents, made available only to the ISO 14000 evaluation groups.

Other ISO 14000 standards planned for the future will cover procedures for conducting environmental audits and environmental investigation, environmental labeling standards, environmental performance evaluation systems, and life-cycle assessment methods.

The goal of the ISO is to have a series of management standards and reporting that will be appropriate for use in every nation. ISO 14001 only addresses management within the company. It does not set specific numerical pollution reduction targets or safety levels; establishing these is the responsibility of individual nations.

Who is Writing These Standards?

Right now, national delegations are attending international meetings, discussing and ultimately voting on the standards. The head of the US technical advisory group, Joe Cascio of IBM, has written that "the imbalance of interests in certain country delegations is another cause for concern....most country representations are skewed to one segment or another of their total interested population. Some delegations are dominated by government standards bureaucrats, others are under control of consultants, and still others are mostly composed of industry representatives."

Will There be Public Access to Each Company's Reports, or Public Participation in Monitoring Company Activities?

Right now, there are no provisions in the ISO series of standards for mandatory public notification or participation. As it stands, it excludes the public, and NGOs, from the structure of assessment and information sharing about the environmental impact of a company's activities.

ECOLOGIA's Recommendations on Transparency and Accountability Using the ISO Standards

ISO 14000 could make an historic affirmative statement on the issues of public participation and free access to information in the global corporate community, or it could remain silent at a time when many governments in countries with a Soviet history are sliding toward repressiveness. In the absence of functioning governmental regulatory systems, public access to information is the only protection that a local population has.

Without any mandatory public notification or participation statement, environmental NGOs will question the credibility of ISO 14000. In fact, it will appear as a policy which moves away from a growing global consensus that NGOs and the general public have a right to participate in environmental decisions which affect their communities.

ECOLOGIA has taken steps to monitor and participate in the US delegation writing the ISO 14000 standards. Environmental NGOs in other countries should find out who is on their national delegations, and should make efforts to participate if there is insufficient NGO representation.