ISO 14000: The future of environmental protection?
ISO 14000: The future of environmental protection?
By Michele Meske
Monitoring compliance with environmental regulations keeps thousands
employed in state and federal environmental agencies in the United
States. Despite this, regulated industries routinely violate laws
designed to protect the environment and continually complain of the
high costs of compliance. Two strategies emerging on the environmental
regulation front -- international standards and self-regulation
projects -- may provide more effective and efficient methods for
protecting the environment.
Since 1947 the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), a
nongovernmental organization headquartered in Geneva, has overseen the
promulgation of over 9,000 International Standards, which govern
everything from freight containers to the thickness of credit cards.
The goal of standardization is the facilitation of worldwide exchange
of goods and services and technology transfer through increased
reliability, compatibility and consumer confidence.
ISO consists of over 120 voting-member countries represented by their
national standards organizations, as well as several observer
countries. Standards are produced through a structure of technical
committees, technical advisory groups and working groups. Participants
include representatives of industry, business, academia, government
and special interest groups. The draft standards are voted upon by
voting-members and result in international agreements.
In August 1991, ISO began development of international environmental
management standards. The following year, ISO formed a technical
committee ("TC207") to supervise the writing of environmental
standards, in which 47 voting countries and 13 observer countries are
currently participating. Environmental management standards are
designated ISO 14000. As each of the components of 14000 is completed,
it will be given an ISO 14000 number. For example, the environmental
management systems specification and guidance standards released in
May 1996 are standards documents 14000 and 14001.
ISO 14000 standards are intended to provide a "roadmap" for business
and industry to integrate environmental concerns into everyday
operations. Through identification of environmental objectives and
targets, organizations establish an appropriate environmental policy
for their business. The standards additionally guide organizations in
the implementation of the environmental policy through auditing and
investigation, record keeping, performance evaluation and training and
education. The standards do not provide actual regulatory goals such
as emission levels, recycling requirements or waste handling rules.
Rather, the standards make it possible for companies to comply with
regulations, as well as to establish their own environmental
Adoption of an environmental management system is merely the first
step in the standards implementation process. In order to be
recognized as an ISO 14000-governed organization, a company must
obtain certification of its management system from an accredited
registrar and auditor body. Such certification is necessary for
companies to prove their implementation of an environmental management
system and maintain their competitiveness in the global marketplace.
The incentives behind standards
Organizations must pay for certification. Implementation and ongoing
monitoring of an environmental management system pursuant to ISO 14000
may require employment of expert assistance and can be expensive. Why,
then, would a company want to do more than it is already required to
do by governmental environmental agencies? The answer lies in the
purpose of international standards: facilitation of global exchange. A
company without certification faces a trade disadvantage when
marketing its goods and services internationally. Conversely, goods
and services marketed by companies with certification may be more
attractive to consumers. Asian industries and manufacturers have
recognized the economic incentive behind standardization and are
beginning to use ISO 14000 to improve their environmental images and
ability to trade worldwide.
In the United States, an additional incentive to standardization is
emerging: regulatory flexibility. The Pennsylvania Department of
Environmental Protection recently announced it would grant regulated
entities that adopted ISO 14000 some flexibility in compliance. In
effect, a company might become somewhat self-regulating, subject to
certification and periodic monitoring. For those companies, the
initial cost of implementing an environmental management system could
be more than equalized by the reduced cost of compliance in the
The U.S. standards problem
The U.S. representative to ISO is the American National Standards
Institute, a nongovernmental organization. However, ANSI is not the
only organization in the U.S. administering standardization efforts.
In early 1995 a conflict developed between ANSI and the Registration
and Accreditation Board over the country's standardization agenda.
Consequently, the certification process in the U.S. has been somewhat
destabilized. According to Donald Sutherland, independent counsel for
the U.S. technical advisory group to TC207, U.S. companies attempting
to export worldwide may face a trade barrier if the certification
authority is not centralized. Currently, some companies are seeking
certification from other countries with strong standards
administration bodies, like the United Kingdom, Germany and the
Netherlands. Sutherland believes the U.S. government's failure to
commit to standardization poses a significant threat to global
competitiveness. Only by adopting a coherent standards administration
policy can the U.S. realize the potential for trade facilitation
offered by international standards.
In March 1995, President Clinton announced his Reinventing
Environmental Regulation Initiative. One component of the initiative
is Project XL, an EPA-administered program designed to allow regulated
entities to create their own environmental protection strategies. To
participate in the program, an organization is required to submit a
project proposal which incorporates innovative environmental
protection methods of wide application. The proposal must demonstrate
that the environmental results achieved would be better than those
contemplated by full compliance. The 50 organizations chosen to
participate in the program are required to enter binding agreements to
implement the strategy in exchange for some degree of regulatory
Project XL allows organizations to adopt environmental regulations
which are proactive and designed to meet the demands of specific
industries, thereby reducing the costs of environmental protection and
the efficiency of the protection itself. Additionally, projects chosen
for the program may be used to regulate other companies and create
industry-wide strategies for environmental protection. Therefore,
Project XL is not only a shift from the U.S.'s usual "top-down"
regulatory scheme, it is a move toward industry-driven, self-managed
As of early May 1996, EPA had accepted 13 projects and another 15
projects had been submitted. Participants include some of the largest
corporations in the U.S., such as Anheuser-Busch, Weyerhaeuser, IBM
and Intel. Several of the projects include implementation of ISO 14000
and third-party certification in exchange for regulatory flexibility.
For example, EPA has accepted Lucent Technologies' proposal to
implement an ISO 14000-governed system to develop a flexible approach
to environmental protection.
The future of environmental protection
The move toward standardizing management of environmental policy and
the use of self-regulation projects partially shifts the burden of
managing environmental protection to the regulated entities. By
focusing less on emission levels and permit violations and more on
global competitiveness and regulatory mechanisms, environmental
agencies may motivate regulated entities in ways environmental goals
alone never have. Utilizing these innovative techniques, organizations
have the potential to master their own environmental destinies.
Whether standards and self-regulation projects will fulfill this
potential, remains to be seen.
For more information on standards, contact Donald Sutherland,
TXED84B@prodigy.com, or visit the following Internet sites:
r information regarding Project XL, visit
http://www.nortel.com/english/environ/ems/ems.html to view one
company's ISO 14000 environmental management system.
(Michele Meske is a staff writer for the Environmental News Network
and an associate attorney with Hogue, Speck & Aanestad, P.A. in
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