Bringing Public Interest into ISO 14000

A Perspective on ENGO Participation Within the U.S. Technical Advisory Group to ISO TC 207

By Deborah Seifert, CNI
Presented to the Special Session of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on ISO 14000 Environmental Management Standards
May 4, 1998

I. Introduction

The NGO Initiative: ISO 14000 Project originated prior to the U.S. Technical Advisory Group (TAG) to ISO TC 207 meetings held in Washington, D.C. in September, 1997. The Community Nutrition Institute and ECOLOGIA (two U.S. based, environmental non-governmental organizations [ENGOs]) began the project with the objective of developing an effective model for ENGO participation within the ISO 14000 process. ISO 14001 certification is beginning to gain momentum both internationally and in the United States.

As companies try to achieve environmental improvements and economic benefits, ISO 14001 is used increasingly to accomplish this goal. Many companies implementing ISO 14001 report multiple benefits (i.e., creates a marketing edge, more efficient management practices, employee satisfaction, savings through waste and resource reduction, fewer regulatory compliance violations etc.). The growing popularity of these standards among companies and the increased interest on the part of U.S. government agencies to consider ISO 14001 as a potential part of public policy decisions requires ENGOs to assess ISO 14000’s credibility as a tool for better environmental performance.

Rationale for developing the project is based upon concerns that global implementation of the ISO 14000 Environmental Management Systems series of standards has significant implications for public environmental policy. Without going into a debate as to whether the implications are positive or negative, the mere fact that public environmental policy was likely to be affected and ENGOs were almost completely absent from the process, motivated the Initiative to develop a mechanism to bring public environmental interests into the ISO 14000 process. The following discussion will focus on past, present, and future activities of U.S. ENGOs in the ISO 14000 process, draw conclusions based on those activities, and suggest recommendations for other ENGOs and governments.

II. Background

A. U.S. ENGO participation prior to 1997

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) is the U.S. member to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). ANSI is a private organization and its members participate in the development of ISO standards according to ANSI rules and procedures. ANSI procedures allow for public interest participation in the standards setting process. When ISO charged Technical Committee 207 (TC 207) with development of the 14000 Environmental Management Systems series of standards in 1993, ANSI formed the U.S. TAG to TC 207. The composition of the U.S. TAG at that time was overwhelmingly U.S. business based with some participation by a few U.S. federal agencies. In 1994 the U.S. TAG invited the ENGO community to participate, and a few organizations responded.

Some of the original ENGOs that participated include National Wildlife Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, and World Wildlife Fund. These organizations encountered various obstacles to participation. First, the standards objectives and process for development were confusing and difficult to master. Business and government participants were much more familiar with this type of forum. Second, the resources and staffing needed to keep up with meetings occurring in the six sub-TAGs and at the international level were extensive. Because public policy implications for ISO 14000 were still unclear or unknown, generating financial support from the traditional charitable foundations for these activities was practically impossible. Third, implications associated with ENGO participation were unclear. Constituencies could not be given any guarantee that ENGO participation would result in any meaningful incorporation of public interest concerns into the standards. And finally, by 1994 when these groups begin to participate in the process, much of the current ISO 14001 EMS specification document was already written.

During 1996, most of these organizations withdrew from the process. However, other organizations such as Pacific Institute, ECOLOGIA, World Stewardship Institute, and Global Forest Policy Project had begun to participate in several areas of the standard series such as eco-labeling, life cycle assessment, environmental performance evaluation, and forestry.

B. U.S. ENGO Participation 1997 to the Present

After analyzing issues faced by ENGOs to participating in ISO 14000, two organizations, Community Nutrition Institute and ECOLOGIA, developed an approach for effective participation by the public interest community at the U.S. TAG level. In the fall of 1997, the NGO Initiative: ISO 14000 Project began by holding a half day workshop in Washington D.C. to determine whether there was sufficient interest among the ENGO community to develop and coordinate an NGO Working Group on ISO 14000. The Initiative invited ENGOs who were currently participating in the U.S. TAG along with other local, regional, and national organizations to the workshop. The result was to form an NGO Working Group of a dozen organizations with the objective of networking around the issue of ISO 14000 standards development and implementation.

The decision made by the ENGOs to form a Working Group on ISO 14000 in concert with the U.S. TAG’s efforts in facilitating NGO participation, has significantly increased the efficiency and effectiveness of organizations who participate on behalf of the public interest within the U.S. TAG. ANSI has provided the NGO Working Group with meeting space at its bi-annual TAG meetings. This has given NGOs the opportunity to conduct important planning meetings and provided much needed discussion time to consult with each other on issues being addressed in the different sub-TAG meetings.

The U.S. TAG leadership has provided further arrangements for an ENGO forum at the June ISO TC 207 meetings in San Francisco, June 14-21, 1998. Additional space for observers has been provided at the different sub-Committee (SC) meetings. ENGOs have been guaranteed a certain portion of the these seats. The ENGO forum scheduled for June 17, will provide an unique opportunity for international ENGOs to discuss ISO 14000 concerns and participation activities as they relate to various country’s policies in conjuction with the TC 207 forum. Additional meeting time has been scheduled to allow ENGOs an opportunity to bring questions and issues to the TC leadership. An informal workshop for ENGOs and TC participants is also in the planning.

Other activities of the NGO Working Group on ISO 14000 have lent strength to the effectiveness of ENGO participation. The Working Group has begun to participate in conference calls before important TAG-wide ballots are voted. The recent ballot on the Forestry Technical Report is a good example of the Working Groups ability to effectively influence U.S. TAG positions. The Group: 1) conferenced before the ballot; 2) discussed concerns of GFPP and desired changes to the Report; and 3) each organization was able to submit comments that were later recommended by the U.S. TAG .

C. Future U.S. ENGO Participation

Discussions about the review and revision of the ISO 14001 EMS specification document (along with other documents providing guidance on EMSs and auditing) will begin within the U.S. TAG in the fall of 1998. This is a significant development and one that will affect the future relationship of ENGOs with the ISO 14000 process. ENGOs have had certain fundemental concerns about both the ISO 14000 standards and standards setting process, especially 14001. Many of the ENGO concerns are shared by both state and federal regulators , and some groups representing business. Ideally, these concerns should be openly debated among all stakeholders when the standards open for review and revision.

ENGOs are becoming skilled in the process and are becoming valued members of the U.S. delegation. For example, at the June TC 207 meetings in San Francisco, ENGOs will be expert negotiators and delegates for the U.S. in several of the TC meetings. This is a significant development and one which should not be overlooked. The implications are that a certain amount of mutual trust developed between the ENGOs and the U.S. TAG.

III. Factors Influencing ENGO Participation in ISO 14000

Although ENGO participation has increased, there are still concerns that the obstacles to ENGO participation will continue to outweigh the benefits gained through group collaboration and expertise. Some obstacles are substantive and others are procedural. On the substantive side, is the uncertainty whether ENGO participation in the ISO 14000 standards development process will actually result in better environmental performance by companies that conform to ISO 14001. Currently there is not sufficient data on the environmental performance of ISO 14000 standards to justify the heavy investment an organization must make to fully participate in the standards development process. In the U.S. there are several states conducting pilot projects with companies implementing ISO 14001. The data being gathered is expected to answer some of the questions about ISO 14001 performance.

Procedural obstacles include:

1) The disporportionate number of business interest represented in the process as compared to that of public interest and federal or state regulators. The concern here is that when public interest issues (e.g., public reporting) are raised within the process, that based on numbers alone, the odds are always going to be in favor of the business interest.

2) The logistics for meetings. The concern here is that ENGOs will expend scarce organizational resources to provide staff and travel funds for meetings which occur on a monthly or bi-monthly basis (depending on the level of debate) and anywhere across the U.S. and the world (depending on the forum).

Based on discussions with many of the ENGOs currently participating in the U.S. TAG, these obstacles have not been overwhelming. The participants feel that their efforts have been worthwhile and on several occassions they have been able to get important language into the standards. ENGOs have reported that they have been able to gain support for some of their positions from those outside the ENGO community. One factor which is often overlooked is that business interest are not monolithic. It is not unusual for "high-end" business actors, environmental professionals, government, and ENGOs to find themselves in complete support of each others positions at various junctions in the standards development process. Strategic alliances are a vital tool to standards development, especially for under-represented stakeholders such as the ENGOs.

A key factor to forming strategic alliances is the ability to attend meetings. It is impossible to build alliances when your allies are frequently absent from the process. Several of the ENGOs who are currently participating in the U.S. TAG, have been doing so on a consistent basis for the past two years and strategic alliances are beginning to form. This has the potential for increased effectiveness for public interest positions. ENGOs compensate for their lack of numbers by keeping each other informed about important decisions coming up for votes in the various SubTAGs, especially when someone has had to miss a meeting. Coordination by the NGO Working Group has helped increase effectiveness of participation considerably. However, overcoming the obstacles to participation is still a strain on organizational resources and will require commitment and planning on the part of the ENGOs. Outside support from foundations, governments, and standard setting bodies is vital.

IV. Conclusion

ISO 14000 Environmental Management System series of standards is a voluntary set of standards that organizations can use as a tool to manage the environmental aspects of its operations. Many believe there is considerable potential for the ISO 14000 series to become a valuable tool to help meet both the private sector’s need for better, more efficient business practices and the public’s interest demands for a healthy environment and a sustainable future. Key to achieving these results from the standard’s use is making the standards credible and understandable to the public. This can only happen if public interest groups have adequate input into the standards development process. The U.S. has opened its standards setting process to public interest groups.

Procedures and policies which facilitate these groups are proving to be beneficial to the U.S. government, business, and the public. The NGO Initiative: ISO14000 project has proven that effective participation is possible, but only if certain key elements are in place. These elements include, but are not limited to the following:

1) Access to the Process. Public interest organizations must have access to the standards development process. The access must occur sufficiently early in the process to allow for meaningful input into the standards as they are drafted.

2) Resources. Public interest organizations must have sufficient resources for both staff and travel to meetings.

3) Knowledge About the Process and the Standards. Public interest organizations must become knowledgeable about the different stages and forums for developing standards. As the standards are negotiated, organizations must constantly review the developing documents and be prepared to offer language which they consider appropriate and necessary to serve the public’s interest.

4) Long-term Participation. Public interest organizations must be prepared to take a long-term approach to participation. Until the documents gain final international status, language within the standard is subject to change. It can take from two to five years to finalize a standard. Even after a standard is final, it will be open for review or revision every five years.

5) Coordination and Strategic Alliances. Public interest organizations should create networks to help coordinate and strengthen their positions. The public interest sector should also look for opportunities to form strategic alliances with other sectors as well.

V. Recommendations

1. Governments should help create support mechanisms to allow for public interest input and participation in the ISO14000 standards development process.

2. Standard setting bodies should implement procedures that provide for public interest participation and concerns in the ISO 14000 standards development process.

3. ISO 14000 standards should be made available to public interest organizations and the public in order for them to understand the standards and provide comment.

4. Public interest organizations (especially ENGOs) should read the ISO 14000 documents and propose language within the standards setting process which would address perceived public interest needs.

5. ENGOs should create networks within their countries to increase effectiveness and maximize resources for standards development participation.

6. ENGOs should network internationally with other ENGOs to strengthen the potential for international cooperation.


NGO Initiative: ISO 14000 Project is a joint project of the Community Nutrition Institute and ECOLOGIA, both non-profit organizations based in the United States. Deborah Siefert Morrill, a staff attorney for CNI, manages the project. Ed Shoener from ECOLOGIA, and Nancy Evans Stuckwisch, a consultant, comprise the NGO Initiative’s primary staff.

Community Nutrition Institute (CNI), Executive Director, Rodney E. Leonard. CNI is a non-profit [501(c)(3)] Washington, D.C. organization founded in 1969 with a focus on policy and program development, especially regulatory and nutrition issues. CNI's focus is on the individual citizen in the community and his or her role in shaping issues for a sustainable society. CNI's experience in developing citizen participation began in the early 1970s when CNI developed the procedures still in use by the Food and Drug Administration for integrating stakeholder concerns into the agencies management of regulatory issues. CNI has more recently become involved with voluntary international standards such as Codex Alimentarius and ISO 14000.

ECOLOGIA, Executive Director, Randy Kritkausky. ECOLOGIA based in Hartford, Pennsylvania was among the first American non-profit organizations to work directly with NGOs in the former Soviet Union and the Baltic States. ECOLOGIA has matured and adapted to the changing circumstances of environmental work in the region. ECOLOGIA's commitment is to provide our partners with: (1) permanent on-site capability to gather environmental monitoring information, and (2) the ability to gather technical information needed to interpret monitoring data and more generally to participate as fully informed players in environmental decision-making. ISO 14000 is being examined to better understand its potential role in these countries.

As of February 1998, the total number of international ISO 14001 certifications (not including self-declared conformance) was approved for approximately 3350 sites. In the U.S. there are about 110. Experts predict that within the U.S. alone, more than 20,000 domestic facilities will become registered to ISO 14001 by the end of 2001. ISO 14000 Update, Federal Energy Technology Center Newsletter, Vol. 1 (March 1998).

Further rationale concerning the NGO Initiative: ISO 14000 project is published on the Initiative’s website at

The Initiative’s approach to effective public interest participation is based on the following:

I. Create a network of ENGOs that are knowledgeable about ISO 14000 issues.

and organize and NGO Working Group.

II. Agree to a set of goals and objectives. The U.S. NGO Working Group has agreed to the following three objectives:
          1) gain and disseminate information about ISO 14000, its standards development process, and methods of implementation;          
2) ensure that the public interest perspective from the national, regional, and local levels are represented in the ISO 14000 standards development process; and
3) create a network to facilitate communication between NGOs working on ISO 14000 and related issues.

III. Identify each organizations primary interest regarding ISO 14000. Determine whether the organizations will be actively participating in the standards process. If organizations chose to participate, determine which area(s) of the standard they will focus on.

IV. Agree to report to each other concerning developments within the standard.

V. Monitor implementation of the ISO 14000 standards and provide input back into the development process.

NGO Working Group on ISO 14000 Membership:

Pacific Institute- Jason Morrison

World Stewardship Institute- Jane Eliason

Environmental Law Institute-Jay Pendergrass and Erik Meyers

Tulane Environmental Law and Policy Center-Jerry Speir

Pennsylvania Environmental Council-Andy Johnson

Defenders of Wildlife-Rina Rodriguez

Greenseal-Authur Weissman

Pennsylvania Resources Defense Council - Pat Imperato

Sierra Club-Mike McCloskey

CNI- Rodney Leonard, Deborah Siefert, and Nancy Evans Stuckwisch

Ecologia- Randy Kritkausky and Ed Shoener

Institute for Environmental Research and Education-Rita Schenck

Global Forest Policy Project-Bill Mankin

A letter stating concerns of the Global Forest Policy Project and the balloting results are published on the Initiative’s website at

At the U.S. TAG meetings, held March 22-24, 1998 in San Antonio, Robert Stephens of the California Environmental Protection Agency and Chair of the Multi-State Working Group (MSWG) on Environmental Management Systems read a letter of recommendation from the group which is comprised of State regulators, academia, ENGOs, and business. He asked the U.S. TAG to "create a structure and process to clarify intent and begin consideration" of the following:

1. Public communication relating to setting goals and reporting performance;

2. The relationship of the EMS to regulatory compliance and performance regarding all significant environmental aspects;

3. The definition of pollution prevention and its role in all aspects of the system.

At the same meeting, Jim Horne of U.S. EPA’s Office of Water and Co-Chair of Sub-TAG 1, expressed almost identical issues that the U.S. EPA would like to have discussed during the revision process. Copies of these statements can be obtained from the NGO Initiative.