Environmental Management Systems (EMS) are management frameworks that incorporate a continuous improvement approach into an organization's policies, procedures, and programs that address how its activities impact the natural environment. These frameworks are generally based on the 'plan, do, check, act model' for coordination of organizational goals and programs. The goal of an EMS is to improve the organization's environmental performance by reducing or preventing pollution associated with its activities, whether in terms of its resource use, its production process, or the fate of its products after they are sold. Improvements in this performance are measured by environmental indicators.
EMS are codified in a variety of international standards, including Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS), British Standard 8555, and ISO 14001: 2004, among others. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other regulatory agencies have shown significant interest in encouraging the development of EMS. This has included research on the value of this concept in regulatory compliance, in going "beyond compliance", and in improving organizational performance. The EPA has also required some organizations cited for violations of environmental regulations to develop EMS for internal use. The U.S. EPA has sponsored research into, and documentation of, model EMS for specific industrial sectors.
EMS are often part of an organization’s sustainability program, which may extend beyond environmental responsibilities to incorporate other aspects of the triple bottom line, specifically economic and social performance. Organizations such as the Global Environmental Management Initiative (GEMI) have developed programs which tie environmental management into these other aspects of sustainability. Many organizations implement an integrated Environment, Health and Safety Management System (EHSMS). Some also integrate their EMS with their management of quality.
EMS and the ISO 14000 Standard
The development of Environmental Management Systems has been primarily driven by work associated with the ISO 14000 family of standards. Thus, a brief synopsis of the history of this standard will provide an overview of the basic concepts associated with the reason for the development and acceptance of EMS's.
The ISO 14000 series emerged primarily as a result of the Uruguay round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations and the Rio Summit on the Environment held in 1992. While GATT concentrates on the need to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade, the Rio Summit formalized a general commitment to the protection of the environment across the world.
The environmental field has seen a steady growth of national and regional standards. The British Standards Institution has BS 7750, the Canadian Standards Association has environmental management, auditing, eco-labeling and other standards, the European Union has all of these plus the eco-management and audit regulations, and many other countries (e.g., USA, Germany and Japan) have introduced eco-labeling programs.
After the rapid acceptance of the ISO 9000 standard for quality management, and the increase of environmental standards around the world, ISO assessed the need for international environmental management standards. They formed the Strategic Advisory Group on the Environment (SAGE) in 1991, to consider whether such standards could serve to:
- Promote a common approach to environmental management similar to quality management;
- Enhance organizations' ability to attain and measure improvements in environmental performance; and
- Facilitate trade and remove trade barriers.
In 1992, SAGE's recommendations created a new committee, TC 207, for international environmental management standards. The committee and its sub-committees include representatives from industry, standards organizations, and government and environmental organizations from many countries. The new series of ISO 14000 standards are designed to cover:
- environmental management systems;
- environmental auditing;
- environmental performance evaluation;
- environmental labeling;
- life-cycle assessment; and
- environmental aspects in product standards.
ISO 14001 was adopted in 1996 as an International Standard for guiding the development of environmental management systems. The ISO 14001 EMS is defined as:
that part of the overall management system that includes organizational structure, planning activities, responsibilities, practices, procedures, processes, and resources for developing, implementing, achieving, reviewing and maintaining the environmental policy (ISO 14001: 1996).
A Committee Draft of a revised version of ISO 14001 was issued in early 2002 with intended adoption set for 2003. This standard is not intended to add to the existing requirements of ISO 14001, but merely to clarify them. The accompanying guidelines document, ISO 14004, is undergoing a much more substantial revision.
Basic EMS Terminology
- Environmental Aspects: specific ways in which an organization's activities affect (or may affect) the physical environment; e.g., generation of solid waste; air pollution; water pollution. These may be organized by environmental media, regulatory programs or organizational functions.
- Environmental Impacts: describes how an organization's environmental aspects actually affect the environment. Some interpret impacts as quantitative outcome metrics: x pounds of trash produced; y pounds of nitrogen oxide emissions; z gallons of waste water to be treated on an annual basis.
- Significance: an assessment of the importance of an organization’s environmental impacts; often impacts are rated as highly, moderately, or not significant. Many organizations use their assessment of the significance of their impacts to prioritize their development of goals and targets.
- Goals and Targets: specific measures for how much improvement in environmental performance is desired, and by when. For example: by February 2007, reduce monthly solid waste by 50% from average monthly 2005 levels. Some targets are usually more specific in timing than goals.
- Stakeholders: parties who have an interest in an organization's environmental management decisions. In designing an EMS, organizations differ in the range of stakeholders they consider, and in the degree to which they solicit and incorporate input from these stakeholders.
- Environmental Performance: measures of how an organization's activities affect the environment. Performance can include aspects of “regulatory compliance” and “beyond compliance” aspects. The general goal of an EMS is to improve an organization’s environmental performance.
- Compliance: the status of an organization's environmental programs relative to the government's expectations as described in specific environmental regulations (e.g., 40 CFR Parts 240-299) written to satisfy specific environmental laws (e.g. RCRA).
- Beyond Compliance: environmental programs designed to address aspects of environmental performance to either (a) achieve results beyond stipulated thresholds, or (b) to address issues that are not required by government regulation, for example greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
- Pollution Prevention (P2): an approach to improving environmental performance that favors preventative measures (e.g., eliminating the use of toxic chemicals) rather than remediation approaches (e.g., treating toxic effluent). Pollution prevention often has specific connotations for various regulatory programs.
- Command and control regulation: regulations that focus on preventing environmental problems by specifying how a company will manage a pollution-generating process. This approach generally relies on detailed regulations followed up by an ongoing inspection program. In the United States, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) is a prime example of this kind of regulation.
- Performance Oriented Regulation: regulations that create incentives for organizations to prevent pollution without providing specific directions how to do so. This generally involves an emphasis on oversight rather than direct inspection of facility practices. These regulations often involve development of Environmental Management Systems as an integral part of their regulatory philosophy.
- US EPA on Environmental Management Systems (US Environmental Protection Agency's EMS webpage)
- On the "Plan, Do, Check, Act" Model (The Balanced Scorecard Institute Homepage)
- Overview of Environmental Indicators (Sustainable Measures Homepage)
- The EU's Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) Homepage
- Description of BS 8555 (Business Information (BSI))
- Information on the ISO Management Systems (International Organization for Standardization)
- Multi-State Working Group on Environmental Performance Homepage (For more information about American regulatory agencies interested in EMS)
- Environmental Management Systems and ISO 14001, National Research Councils' Federal Facilities Council Report No. 138
- Handbook for Implementing an ISO 14001 Environmental Management System : A Practical Approach, John Kinsella and Annette Dennis-McCully. IT Corporation (1999)
- ISO 14001 Case Studies and Practical Experiences, Ruth Hillary, Ed. Sheffield, UK: Greanleaf Publishing (2000)