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.

International standards

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 objectives.

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 long-term.

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.

Self-regulation projects

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 flexibility.

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 regulation.

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,, or visit the following Internet sites:;;
r information regarding Project XL, visit Visit 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 Ketchum, Idaho.)


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