ISO 14001 and Sustainable Development

By: James E. Haklik
Transformation Strategies

"Sustainability" and "sustainable development" have become very popular terms. They are the subjects of conferences, books, and articles, and an underlying principle of many organizations that are active in development projects throughout the world. Sustainability has become the rallying call of environmentalists and a goal of corporations.

The most popular definition of sustainable development is from the World Commission on Environment and Development, or the "Brundtland" Commission, in 1987: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This definition has been expanded and debated, but its essential purpose of caring for future generations remains the same.

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, or Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1992, was convened to address global environmental issues and recommend solutions. Two important results of this conference were Agenda 21 and ISO 14000. Agenda 21 is a comprehensive set of guidelines for achieving sustainability.  It was adopted by 172 nations at the conference. ISO 14000 is a group of standards. It includes ISO 14001 which addresses environmental management and pollution prevention. Prior to the conference, representatives approached the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), asking them to participate and create international environmental standards. ISO announced at the conference that they would undertake this effort. Thus, ISO 14001 was conceived to help achieve sustainable development. This raises the question: how does ISO 14001 help create sustainability?

Recent research into the practices of people who achieved a sustainable lifestyle helps answer this question and enhances our understanding of sustainability. This research looked at the practices of over 200 cultures, from all over the world, and identified their efforts to protect their environment. Their efforts helped sustain them in the places they lived. What emerged was a picture of their relationship to the land that provided them with food, water, shelter, clothing, and a sense of belonging. This "sustainable relationship" is very different than the one we experience today. It is illustrated by the following:

Their relationship is immediate and personal. They receive feedback about their relationship quickly and in enough detail that they can take action before they have destroyed the ability of the land to support them. A sustainable relationship has endured for generations. Lessons have been learned and passed down over a long time.

This relationship can be contrasted with that between citizens of industrial societies and those lands that support them. It looks like this:

People are disconnected from the source of things they need for their life and they do not know the impact they have on those places. This may not be a sustainable relationship.

 

 

Four aspects of the sustainable relationship of native people are also found in ISO 14001. These are:

  1. Awareness of their impact on the environment.
  2. Acceptance of responsibility for those impacts
  3. The expectation that harmful impacts will be reduced or eliminated
  4. The placement of responsibility for environmental impacts upon all members of the community.

While these four aspects alone are not enough to ensure sustainability, they do provide a foundation.

These aspects appear throughout ISO 14001 as these examples illustrate:

1. Awareness of their impact:

4.3.1 Environmental aspects

The organization shall establish and maintain (a) procedure(s) to identify the environmental aspects of its activities, products or services that it can control … to determine those which have or can have significant impacts on the environment.

2. Acceptance of responsibility:

4.1 General Requirements

The organization shall establish and maintain an environmental management system… (This system is to include an environmental policy, environmental objectives and targets, and environmental management program)

3. Reduction of harmful impacts:

4.2 Environmental Policy

Top management shall define the organization’s environmental policy and ensure that it includes a commitment to continual improvement and prevention of pollution

4. Community responsibility

4.4.2 Training, awareness and competence

The organization shall identify training needs. It shall require that all personnel whose work may create a significant impact upon the environment have received appropriate training.

It shall establish and maintain procedures to make its employees or members at each relevant function and level aware of the significant environmental impacts, actual or potential, of their work activities and the environmental benefits of improved personal performance.

Thus, ISO 14001 provides a foundation for sustainability. It is consistent with the practices of native groups that achieved a sustainable relationship with the lands that gave them life. More must be placed upon the ISO 14001 foundation to create a complete sustainable system, but it is an excellent beginning. The benefits of this foundation will accrue to all of us.

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