Beginners Guide to Environmental Management Systems

Environmental management systems offer a framework for managing significant environmental aspects and impacts. 

A good place to start would be what management systems actually are.An effective management system is built on Total Quality Management concepts.  In order to improve environmental management within an organisation focus should be on not just what things happen but also on the reason they happen.  Over time, this constant identification and correction of system weaknesses leads to better environmental (and overall business) performance.

Management system models (including the environmental management system standard ISO 14001 and the health and safety ISO 45001 standard) are constructed on the  simple but effective“Plan, Do, Check, Act” model introduced by Shewart and Deming.  This model is based upon the concept of continual improvement.

  • Plan– how you intend to make changes.
  • Do– implement what you have planned in the previous step.
  • Check– part of good planning is to decide how you will check whether your plans are working. But then you need to make those checks and see whether you are achieving what you wanted to.
  • Act– on the outcomes of previous steps by taking appropriate action or standardising the improvement. This will close the loop and is the essential step for continual improvement.

Continual improvement is an integral part of ISO 14001 standard and is defined as the process of enhancing the management system to achieve improvements in overall performance in line with the organisation’s environmental policy. It means that an organisation must be constantly improving its performance.


What are Environmental Management Systems?

Environmental Management Systems provide a structured framework for delivering continual improvement in environmental performance.  They are voluntary schemes and provide the framework in which companies can adopt a systematic approach to managing the environmental impacts of their business activities.

Companies can seek assessment and certification to environmental management system standards such as ISO 14001 in order to publicly demonstrate their environmental commitment and excellence to their suppliers, customers, shareholders and investors and the general public at large.

ISO 14001 is a stand-alone, auditable environmental management system standard for certification.  A general management framework approach is applied, and there are clear similarities with HSG65, ISO 9001 and ISO 45001.


Does an EMS have to be externally certified?

An organisation can demonstrate its commitment to proactive environmental management to its stakeholders and other interested parties in two ways.

An organisation can have its management system (e.g. ISO 14001) audited and registered by an independent 3rd party. These are known as certification bodies (such as BSI or LRQA). This is the option that most organisations choose . 

You should make sure that the certification body you choose is accredited. For example in the United Kingdom the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) checks that certification bodies are of a high quality themselves. I would not recommend using a non UKAS accredited certification body to audit your environmental management system particularly if  your organisation is based in the UK. 

Another option is for an organisation to make an internal determination and self-declaration of conformance to an environmental management system standard, although this is rare.

The benefits of environmental management system certification and cost vary significantly among organisations depending on the size of and the number of facilities/divisions they choose to certify. 

Although there is no set time frame as to how long it takes to implement an ISO 14001  environmental management system, as it is dependent on the resources an organisation can provide for the project, it commonly take around nine to eighteen months. You should be aware it is more than just filling in a form.


Components of an environmental management system 

The key components of an ISO 14001:2015 environmental management system are:

  • Context of the organisation
  • Leadership
  • Planning
  • Support
  • Operation
  • Performance evaluation, and
  • Improvement.

A logical approach to developing an EMS is to undertake the following activities:

1.Environmental review – this gives a broad view of the environmental performance of your organisation. This is recommended but is not needed to satisfy the ISO 14001 standard (and as such is not included in the outline of the standard above). This review is only carried out once.

2.An environmental policy should be established, stating a strategic goal and sense of direction for the organisation. It must comply with the specific requirements of the ISO 14001 standard.

3.A plan should be formulated by the organisation stating how it will reach the aims stated in the environmental policy. The plan should be broken down into a number of elements:

  • Assessment of environmental aspects of the organisation and evaluation of their associated environmental impacts . This is a process that is basically picking out the key environmental issues of the organisation.
  • Understanding the relevant environmental compliance obligations to which the organisation subscribes (compliance obligations are legal and other requirements (such as guidelines, international standards and client requirements)).
  • Determination of environmental objectives that are consistent with the environmental policy. These provide more information on how the organisation is going to improve than stated in the policy.
  • Determination of how environmental objectives will be achieved. These generally take the form of an environmental action plans – task, date of completion and responsibility being the minimum requirements.

4.The next stage is to operate the system. This will involve the following stages:

  • Establishment of an organised environmental management structure, including the appointment of a specific management representative who will be responsible for managing the environmental management system.
  • Training including the identification of environmental training needs and the undertaking of environmental training of those persons within the organisation who have undertake tasks, which have a significant impact on the environment.
  • A system of communication should be developed for both internal (mainly staff) and external (such as complaints or enquires from regulators) communications with the organisation.
  • The environmental management system must be documented, either in paper or electronic form. This usually takes the form of an environmental manual, environmental procedures and other associated documents.
  • Operations associated with the identified significant environmental aspects and impact must be controlled. This operational control is often attained by the implementation of procedures. This generally results in the  procedures covering high risk actives such as the operation of an effluent treatment plant or waste management. 
  • Emergency plans must also be prepared, maintained and tested (where appropriate).


5.The next stage is performance evaluation this will involve the following:

  • Operational activities must be monitored and measured  that have a significant impact on the environment. This might include hard monitoring (e.g. sampling liquid effluent prior to discharge or monitoring emissions from chimneys (stacks) or soft monitoring (undertaking inspections of the organisation).
  • In order to determine whether the environmental management system complies with the requirements of the standard environmental audit programmes and procedures should be established and maintained. Internal audits are a key part of determining whether the system is actually working.
  • Management review of the  environmental management system  should be undertaken in order to determine the continuing suitability and effectiveness of the system. The review in most organisations generally takes the form of a meeting of top management with the environmental manager (or similar) undertaking a presentation regarding the organisations  environmental management system . The review must be documented. It happens usually about once a year.

6. The next and final stage is improvement. This involves developing a formal process to deal with weakness identified by performance evaluation. It ensure that such weakness are dealt with and is often termed ‘corrective and preventative actions’.

I hope the above helped you gain a basic understanding of  environmental management systems. Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions.