Revised standard takes environmental management to the next level

Paul MacLean - Oct 2015

Nearly 20 years after it was first published, ISO 14001 has become the world’s most widely recognized environmental standard, with more than 250,000 mainly industrial organizations using it as a foundation for their environmental management systems (EMS). The mining industry relies heavily on the standard, as it provides a dependable channel through which stakeholders can gain assurance that a mine and its owners systematically address environmental impacts.

ISO 14001 was initially published in 1996 and revised for the first time in 2004. Since 2011, it has undergone a major overhaul, resulting in the publication of the ISO 14001:2015 International Standard in September, when it went into effect. This revision marks an important milestone for organizations that use the standard.

Since the mid-1990s, methods for the management of risks associated with air emissions, water discharges, waste and natural resource consumption have evolved, as have the expectations of regulators, landowners and the public. The environment has become a strategic business consideration at all stages of projects, from early exploration to mine closure. It is a complex management challenge and warrants significant investments in technology and human resources. The obstacles it raises must be overcome by core business functions like investor relations, regulatory affairs, communications and procurement.

Faced with an array of other obligations regarding stakeholder rights, payment disclosures and product traceability, many companies are repurposing their health, safety and environment systems to encompass social responsibility, or are choosing to develop corporate responsibility systems that integrate the environment. This trend is an underlying theme in ISO 14001:2015.

To maintain its relevance as the global reference for environmental management systems, ISO 14001:2015 requires that organizations examine the broad context in which they operate, taking into account value chain considerations and the expectations of stakeholders. It also requires that an organization’s leadership assume more accountability for environmental performance and greater integration of environmental considerations in business decision-making. Here are three important concepts in the new standard:

Context of the organization

Organizations must demonstrate in their EMS an understanding of the conditions and factors that could affect their environmental management, such as climate change, natural resource availability and constraints, the quality of water and air, and the regulatory framework. The organization’s social context in particular, specifically the needs and expectations of interested parties (which can include governments, investors, employees, communities, aboriginal groups, customers, et cetera), must be taken into account. It must identify the interested parties that are relevant to its EMS and consider their needs and expectations when identifying its compliance obligations.

Compliance obligations

Formerly under the heading “Legal and other requirements” in the 2004 version of the standard, “Compliance obligations” are considered as possible sources of risks and opportunities to organizations. Organizations are now required to maintain documentation of their obligations and action plans to address them. Obligations can include applicable laws and regulations, industry standards and codes of practice, as well as requirements arising from agreements with interested parties.

Life cycle thinking

When organizations examine their environmental aspects and assess the degree of control they have to prevent or mitigate associated impacts, they are now required to also include impacts arising from the use of products (e.g. chemical products, additives, components or parts) and their treatment or disposal at the end of their useful lives. While this does not mean that a life cycle analysis of these products must be performed, it does imply that controls should be established in the design and development process of products or services, considering each stage of the life cycle. Organizations must also establish environmental requirements for the procurement of products and services, and control or influence any outsourced processes.

Much of the structure of the standard has changed substantially in order to incorporate these new concepts, although it does preserve some elements of the familiar 2004 version. The table of contents, for example, is based on a new high-level structure for documentation that is now common to all ISO management standards, to enable integration with other topics such as health and safety as well as quality (both of which have impending new or revised ISO standards as well, with the development of ISO 45001 underway and ISO 9001:2015 expected by the end of this year).

ISO 14001:2015 is designed to help organizations revitalize, restructure and improve their environmental management practices while pushing corporate environmental performance to a higher level. As markets and mentalities have evolved, the standard needed updating to stay in line with today’s thinking about environmental issues, and to integrate sustainable development concepts better. With the new version, any type of organization wishing to prepare for the environmental challenges and business opportunities of the future will have a stable framework of requirements for the next 10 years or more.


Paul MacLean is president and founder of EEM Sustainable Management, a Montreal-based boutique management consultancy that has provided leadership in environmental and social responsibility to a wide variety of multinational and local industries, as well as aboriginal organizations since 1993. Paul has directed environmental and social management projects in Canada, the United States, Africa, Asia, and Europe.