Environmental Management Systems: Are They Just Hot Air?

ANALYSIS - Sincere approaches to sustainability are taken by companies after commitments to environmentally-friendly practices are made, new research suggests.
calendar icon 12 November 2013
clock icon 4 minute read

Researchers for the European Commission have found that the adoption of the ISO 14000 environmental management programme was not ‘greenwash’, but reflected a move towards more sustainable practices in both European and North American companies.

ISO 14000 is designed to help reduce environmental impacts produced by manufacturing businesses and among those sectors that have the greatest impact on the environment is food production.

Global food production occupies 25 per cent of all habitable land and is responsible for 70 per cent of fresh water consumption, 80 per cent of deforestation, and 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Because of these impacts the sector has to seek to make itself as efficient as possible.

The use of management systems, such as the ISO standards, are designed to increase efficiency and help reduce unnecessary waste by harmonising requirements and making production processes completely efficient.

Examples of standards that can help include management standards to make the most of their processes are ISO 9001 for quality, ISO 14001 covering the environment and ISO 50001 reflecting energy use. In addition, ISO 14051 for material flow accounting helps business reduce waste and emissions while enhancing environmental performance.

ISO standards for water management are also designed to save precious resources.

The future water footprint standard, ISO 14046, is intended to help organisations keep track of water use.

ISO is also developing ISO 16075-1, to encourage the reuse of wastewater in irrigation. With 70 per cent of fresh water consumption being used for global food production, this could have a significant environmental impact.

ISO 14020, ISO 14021, ISO 14024 and ISO 14025 on environmental labelling can be used by businesses to communicate about their environmental impact so that consumers can make informed choices.

Environmental management systems, such as ISO 14000 and the EU’s EMAS1, are designed to provide a holistic approach towards reducing environmental impact, and the number of companies that are using these systems has increased rapidly in recent years.

However, it has been suggested that companies may use environmental management systems as greenwash – that they might adopt these systems purely as a marketing tool, hoping to win over consumers and other players in the market without having to invest in underlying green practices.

According to the European Commission research in particular, and in conjunction with previous research, it has been proposed that North American companies are more likely to be using ISO 14000 as greenwash than European companies.

In the latest EC study, researchers set out to investigate the motivations for adopting the ISO 14000 and to investigate whether these differed between European and North American companies.

The researchers used data from the Global Manufacturing Research Group, a multinational body that conducts surveys that are standardised and refined by experts.

The surveys were sent to 231 companies in three North American countries (Canada, Mexico and the United States) and 370 companies in seven western European countries (Austria, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland), between 2006 and 2009.

Plant managers were asked to rank how far the company had gone towards implementing ISO 14000 and then asked how much investment there was in ‘environmental supply chain management’ (ESCM), for example, in pollution reduction, recycling and waste reduction measures.

The researchers then used investment in ESCM to reflect the true intentions behind the company’s environmental strategy.

The results showed that companies that had made more effort to implement the ISO 14000 did invest more in ESCM.

Although this does not mean that environmental management systems are never used as greenwash, it does suggest that, overall, ISO 14000 does lead to genuine environmentally-friendly investment.

The research also found that there was no difference in either levels of adoption of ISO 14000 or investment in ESCM between western European and North American companies.

The study concluded that this research does not support claims that North American companies are more likely to use the ISO 14000 purely as a marketing tool.

Overall, the results indicated that the ISO 14000 is a worthwhile system that does lead to increased investment in reducing companies’ environmental impact.

According to the ISO organisation much of what businesses and manufacturers do to reduce their environmental impact will be driven by consumer opinion and consumer demand.

"With the relentless focus on climate change and health, consumers are becoming more interested in less tangible product attributes such as the ethical and environmental aspects of a product’s production and supply,” ISO has said.

“In response to this, manufacturers often voluntarily choose to provide information concerning the environmental aspects of their products on labelling and in advertising.

"In short, the environmental benefits of a company’s products, such as recyclability of packaging, are part of its overall marketing strategy.

Smart businesses are making a virtue out of necessity by promoting the environmental features of their products.

“Getting a market benefit through environmental labelling makes sense, particularly where companies have made the investment in environmental improvement and putting environmental management systems in place."

The authors of the EC study have now called for the research to be expanded to include other European countries and across Asia, but they have warned that the study only measured investment and they suggested that research is needed into how much environmental impacts are actually reduced.


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