What is ISO 14001?

Introduction to ISO 14001

The importance of protecting and preserving the environment is becoming increasingly important for industry. In the wake of multiple environmental disasters in the past few decades, consumers are interested in how companies are positively or negatively impacting the environment.

Therefore, industries today are looking for ways to go green. Many organizations are actively looking at methods to reduce energy consumption, recycle materials and reduce their impact on the environment.  

There is also mounting political pressure for companies to pay for any damage they cause to the environment. A report released by the UN estimated that costs related to environmental damage could cause a decline in the global economy of at least 7% within the next few decades.


In addition, many communities are taking steps to reduce their impact on the environment. Recycling has become common practice and is now required in many urban areas. This raises the question “How can organizations measure progress or success regarding their impact on the environment?”.

One valuable tool is ISO 14001:2015, which is an international standard focused on the development and implementation of an effective Environmental Management System.


What is ISO 14001

ISO 14001 is one of the most significant standards within the ISO 14000 family of standards. ISO 14001 focuses on development and implementation of an Environmental Management System (EMS).

An ISO 14001 compliant EMS should address all environmental issues relevant to the organization’s business operations including air pollution, waste management, water and soil contamination, impact on climate change, and efficient use of resources. Implementation of the standard will allow organizations to:

  • Minimize the organization’s negative impact on the environment
  • Ensure compliance with any environmental regulatory requirements or laws
  • Promote continual improvement of the organization’s environmental impact

The ISO 14001 standard is applicable to organizations of all sizes, large and small. Development of an EMS allows the organization to take a systemic approach in dealing with any environmental issue.


The ISO 14001 standard is based on the Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) cycle, otherwise known as the Demming Cycle or Shewerts Circle. ISO 14001:2015 is the latest revision of the standard. Some of the key changes to the standard include:

  • The Environmental Management System must be more prominent and part of the organization’s strategic direction
  • Requirements for proactive plans to protect the environment
  • Greater leadership commitment to the EMS and objectives
  • Stakeholder-focused communication
  • Same structure, terms and definitions as other ISO-based systems, allowing for ease of integration
ISO 14001
ISO 14001

Why Implement ISO 14001

Over the past several years, companies and top executives have been legally held responsible for their role in negatively impacting the environment. Chief executives of companies have been convicted, fined and even given prison sentences due to preventable accidents or negligence.

Beyond the moral and legal responsibilities to protect the environment, there are solid business advantages to be gained from addressing environmental issues through the implementation of an ISO 14001 compliant Environmental Management System.

Improvements in environmental management can result in a positive impact on business performance and the bottom line. Some of the potential benefits are as follows:

  • Increase in brand equity of improved corporate image
  • Gain access to a new environmentally conscious customer base
  • Promote more efficient use of resources and reduction of waste
  • Improve relationships with stockholders, regulatory agencies and consumers

How to Implement ISO 14001

Implementation of ISO 14001 and subsequent certification will require time, resources, commitment and full support from the management team. There are ten main sections of the standard.

The first three cover the Scope of the document, Normative References, and Terms and Definitions applicable to the standard.

The remaining sections concentrate on the contents and requirements for developing, implementing, and managing an ISO 14001 compliant Environmental Management System.

The 14001:2015 standard identifies the PDCA methodology as the iterative process for organizations to use to achieve continual improvement.

The success of the Environmental Management System requires commitment from all levels of the organization. Top management must lead the effort and provide sufficient resources not only to implement but to fully support the EMS.

The ISO 14001:2015 standard provides the framework for building and implementing a robust EMS. In addition, adherence to the requirements within the standard will enable the organization to achieve the objectives of their EMS.

Section 4 – Context of the Organization

The ISO 14001:2015 standard requires evaluation of the internal and external influences relevant to organization’s purpose that could impact meeting the objectives of the EMS.

These influences include any environmental condition, either affected by the organization or that could affect the organization. The organization must also:

  • Understand and consider the needs and expectations of the interested parties
  • Determine which of the needs are, or may become, regulatory requirements
  • Determine and document the scope of the EMS and make it available to all interested parties

Section 5 – Leadership

The ISO 14001 standard directs the leadership of an organization to demonstrate leadership and commitment to the EMS. Top management of the organization must:

  • Take responsibility and accountability for the effectiveness of the EMS
  • Establish an Environmental Policy and ensure objectives are aligned with corporate strategy
  • Integrate the EMS into the organization’s regular business practices
  • Provide adequate resources for implementation and continued support of the EMS
  • Promote a culture of continual improvement regarding protecting the environment

Environmental Policy

The standard requires that leadership establish and maintain an Environmental Policy. Organizations should provide and document the principles and guidelines for establishing their EMS.

The Environmental Policy should:

  • Provide a framework for establishing the objectives of the EMS
  • Align with the purpose and context of the organization
  • Include a commitment to protecting the environment

In addition, the Environmental Policy must be documented, communicated throughout the organization, be available for review by interested parties, and be relevant and appropriate to the function and objectives of the Environmental Management System and the organization.

Organizational Roles Responsibilities and Authority

Top management is responsible for assignment of Roles and Responsibilities regarding the EMS. This information must be documented and communicated to all levels of the organization.

In addition, the leadership of the organization is required to assign responsibility and authority to ensure the EMS conforms to ISO 14001 requirements as well as report EMS system performance to management.

Section 6 – Planning

During the Planning phase of implementing an ISO 14001:2015 compliant EMS, top management must consider many factors.

The context of the organization must be taken into account along with any interested parties, and the overall scope of the management system. The organization’s top management must also ensure the EMS is capable of achieving desired objectives.

Furthermore, plans must be developed and in place to prevent any negative impact to the organization due to external environmental conditions and achieve continual improvement of the EMS.

Addressing Risks and Opportunities

To meet the ISO 14001:2015 standard, an organization must determine what environmental aspects of their processes, products and / or services can be controlled.

In addition, the organization must consider the possible impact of their activities on the environment from a product life cycle perspective. When determining environmental aspects of their activities, the organization must take the following into account:

  • Any planned changes to the organization’s products or services and their environmental impact
  • Nonstandard conditions and probable emergency situations

The organization shall define the criteria used to determine environmental impact of their activities. They must also communicate any significant aspects of their operations that could have a negative impact on the environment throughout all levels of the organization.

This information must be documented and maintained as part of the EMS records.

In addition, the organization must assure that they have a thorough understanding of any legal or regulatory requirements that may apply to their organization or to the EMS.

Plans should be developed to address any possible legal requirements and any identified risks to the environment or opportunities for continual improvement of the EMS.

Environmental Objectives

The ISO 14001:2015 standard requires organizations to set goals or objectives for the proper maintenance and continual improvement of the EMS.

The Environmental Objectives must align with the Environmental Policy. The objectives must also be documented, preferably measurable, consistently monitored, maintained, updated and properly communicated.

When developing the plans for achieving the EMS objectives, the organization must consider the following:

  • What are the objectives
  • What resources are required to achieve the objectives
  • Who is responsible for carrying out the plan
  • When will the objective be completed
  • How the results will be measured and monitored
  • How can the results be shared and integrated into the culture of the organization

Section 7 – Support

Successful development, implementation and maintenance of a new or revised Environmental Management System is directly related to the amount of support received from all levels of management within the organization.

The ISO 14001:2015 standard requires top management to devote sufficient resources for establishing, implementing, maintaining, and driving continual improvement of the Environmental Management System.


In order for any system, process or business to be successful, the personnel supporting the EMS must demonstrate competency to fulfill their duties.

The standard stipulates that organizations define the education, experience or formal training requirements for all individuals performing work that affects environmental performance.

The organization should provide any required training for individuals to ensure they are competent in their roles regarding the EMS and its performance.

It is also best practice for the qualifications of individuals occupying key positions in the organization affecting the execution or performance of the EMS to be documented and available for review by any third-party auditors.


Persons performing work shall be made aware of all policies, objectives and their contribution to the success of the Environmental Management System. In addition, the workers shall be provided information regarding:

  • The significant environmental aspects of their work and any possible environmental impact that could result from their activities
  • Possible implications of not adhering to the EMS policies
  • Their expected contribution to the success of the EMS system


Proper internal and external lines of communication are essential for the success of an Environmental Management System. Internally the organization must ensure adequate communication of any relevant EMS information to all levels of the organization. 

External communication must be established to ensure compliance with regulatory or certification requirements.


The EMS must document information required by ISO 14001 and any information specified by the organization that could affect the success of the EMS.  All information required by the standard must be documented. All relevant documents shall:

  • Follow a standard format determined by the organization
  • Have adequate protection of the content and control revisions
  • Document changes or updates to documents and ensure changes are identified and traceable
  • Be available for use where and when required, and the content protected

In addition, the document control system must allow for proper access, distribution, storage, retention and eventual disposition of documents.

Section – 8 Operation

Operational Planning and Control

This section covers information pertaining to the implementation, maintenance and control of key processes within the EMS.  Proper criteria must be determined for each of the processes.

Controls must be developed within the EMS to assure that environmental factors are addressed during:

  • The design and development phases of the NPI process
  • Each stage in the product’s lifecycle
  • The selection and procurement of external products, parts or services
  • Communication with any external provider or contractor

In addition, properly documented information is required for education and training to assure the processes are carried out per the EMS plan.

All documentation regarding the operation of the EMS should be controlled and available for review by internal or external auditors.

Emergency Preparedness and Response

In the environmentally conscious business environment of today, organizations must be prepared to handle any situation that may arise. 

Emergency preparedness is the key to containing and controlling the extent of environmental impact due to accidents, equipment failures and other possible causes of potentially hazardous events.

ISO 14001:2015 requires the development and implementation of effective emergency preparedness and response processes. The organization shall:

  • Develop plans to prevent or mitigate impact to the environment due to emergency situations
  • Be prepared to adequately respond to any environmental emergencies
  • Provide relevant information and emergency response training
  • Periodic testing and exercises to demonstrate response capability
  • A method for evaluating performance of the processes

Furthermore, the organization must maintain and retain documented information regarding the processes and emergency response plans.

Section – 9 Performance

Performance evaluation falls within the “Check” portion of the PDCA process. The ISO 14001 standard requires that organizations establish procedures for monitoring and measuring the performance of the EMS.

The organization should determine the criteria by which the performance of the EMS system shall be evaluated. An internal auditing process must also be developed and implemented.

Internal audits are to be performed at designated intervals to ensure the EMS is meeting internal, legal / regulatory and ISO requirements. Records of the audit results shall be retained and available for review.

The audit findings may serve as evidence of the Environmental Management System’s effectiveness. Organizational leadership meetings should be held at regular intervals to review the performance of the EMS.

The subject matter of the review meetings may include, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Status of actions from previous reviews
  • Internal or external issues impacting the EMS
  • Any possible risks and opportunities relating to the EMS
  • The performance of the EMS in meeting planned objectives

Management should report any relevant information resulting from the reviews to workers and other interested parties. The organization shall also retain documented records of the results of the management reviews.

Section 10 – Continual Improvement

Organizations compliant to the standard must actively look for opportunities to continually improve the EMS and allow for achievement of the EMS intended goals and objectives.

Continual improvement is defined as an improvement that occurs over a period with intervals of interruption. This differs from the continuous improvement that occurs without periods of interruption.

The standard requires organizations to establish processes for reporting and investigating incidents or EMS nonconformities and developing effective corrective actions. Organizations should ensure that the root cause of any nonconformity is identified and addressed through Root Cause Analysis (RCA). The root cause is the true underlying or fundamental cause of nonconformity. If the root cause is not determined, the issue may re-occur within the same process or elsewhere in the organization. Multiple tools are available for performing RCA. Some of the most commonly used tools are:

Upon determining the root cause, appropriate corrective actions must be developed to address the non-conformity and prevent future occurrences. In addition, an action plan should be developed for implementation of the corrective actions and document their effectiveness.

It is also a good methodology to document the activities using a continual improvement plan and review the record. The purpose of this record is to document the results of continual improvement actions and their effectiveness.

Protection of our environment is vital for the future of our civilization. We must consider any probable negative impacts to the environment throughout the product’s lifecycle.

As previously stated, the ISO 14001 standard incorporates the PDCA cycle approach towards building, operating, and continually improving your EMS.

Within the PDCA cycle, the Plan phase deals with the beginning stages of an organization becoming ISO 14001-compliant. The Do phase is the implementation and operation of the ISO 14001 standard within an organization.

The Check phase deals with checking and correcting errors within the system along with periodic reviews of EMS performance by top management. The Act phase ensures that the cycle never ends as an organization continually finds ways to improve its EMS.

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