No Substitute for Legal Safeguards

By Ed Shoener, ECOLOGIA

Ed Shoener is a board member of Ecologia since 1988 and former staff member of U.S. EPA and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources. He has been a member of the U.S. Technical Advisory Group to ISO since 1995
If you were to pick up a copy of ISO 14001 and just read it, without being aware of all the political rhetoric that has surrounded the standard, you would have to conclude that ISO 14001 is a useful management tool that can benefit the environment and help companies be more efficient. It is unfortunate that a number of vocal "supporters" of the standard have been so effective in politicizing it to the point that many members of the environmental community are reluctant to support lSO 14001.

I have heard politically motivated speakers and some government officials make extravagant claims about ISO 14001 in their rhetoric. They make wild statements asserting that if ISO is used by a company, the day may come when there will be no need for the government to inspect its manufacturing facilities, or that ISO heralds the end of command-and-control.

Environmental laws and standards will not be rolled back, because the public will not allow this to happen; witness the results of the "Contract with America" and its failed attempts to cut back environmental protection measures. The mixing of lSO 14001 with politicized calls for a rollback in environmental laws and standards could doom the effective use of ISO in the United States.

I am a board member of an international organization called ECOLOGIA. We help grass-roots environmental groups in eastern Europe and Russia. We have taken an interest in ISO 14001 because we believe it has the potential to be an especially effective tool to help eastern European and Russian citizens groups work with local industries to improve the environment. In many of these countries where democracies are just emerging, the ISO 14001 standard, if properly used, has the potential for helping to build democracies. Concepts such as making available to the public a company's environmental policy and considering the views of the public in the development of a company's environmental management programs are new ideas.

The United States is not an emerging democracy. ISO 14001 actually lags well behind our traditions of substantial public involvement in environmental decision making. We can review permits and review government inspection reports. For some time now, some of the more enlightened U.S. companies have been soliciting the views of the public as they establish corporate policies.

Although ISO 14001 can help companies better manage their affairs, it is not an effective substitute for the procedural safeguards and public review requirements that environmental groups have fought so hard to obtain.

How should federal government agencies respond to ISO 14001? I suggest that they need only adopt internal guidelines that require government facilities to be managed in accordance with the standard (i.e. physician heal thyself). Otherwise, let organizations, not the government, decide for themselves if ISO 14001 is needed for their operations.

ISO14001 should be left out of the limelight of politics and government policy making initiatives. ISO 14001 should simply be used by organizations to manage themselves more efficiently and effectively. That is all. And that is Plenty.

Copyright (c) 1997 Environmental Law Institute. Reprinted from The Environmental Forum. All rights reserved.