Let’s start by asking what an environmental management system is? And I find that many people consider the answer to this to be very vague and varied. However, put very simply, the name is Environmental Management System. This is interesting because what is actually being done as an EMS does not always include the environment, the way the business is managed, or a system. 

This year the South Australian seafood industry gave their environment award to the Lobster Clean Green program. This is a great program with the most wonderful traceability and on vessel laminated worksheets with some mentions of waste management but it is primarily a HACCP or food safety system. It is not an EMS.   There are various checklist or “tick and flick” approaches which are a good start to raise awareness of many of the typical issues but because every business, even within the same industry, is different, they will miss things and they create a false sense that the business owner has fulfilled all his responsibilities once he has ticked everything. 

The auditing of these is often less than robust and they are sometimes once off only.   One size fits all seldom does. When I worked with the finfish farmers in South Australia the National Aquaculture Council wanted me to hand over a generic environmental management plan that could be handed out to all other fish farms in the country. The problem was that every farm involved was different and had very varied environmental issues and we did not have a generic plan and if I had combined them all, and handed it out to others, would those recipients have just filed it as “Done” and never really thought about their own unique problems and risks. 

I also had issues about the privacy of the businesses that were involved if I simply shared their work.   Environmental Management Plans sometimes called EMP’s, are the first stage on the way to developing an EMS and lack the system needed to make the plan work and go on working..   “Best management plans” are a real concern because, although many have some excellent features, the word BEST locks in a practice that may no longer be appropriate and it inhibits continual improvement. 

How can you improve on the best after all? So what about the benefits or “rewards”? No business is likely to do an environmental management system without some reward. Lesson 1 in marketing is to look at the WIIFM or What’s In It For Me factor. In some cases the reward is a feel good factor but most business owners want more if they are going to justify the expense. In the case of many of the early agribusiness EMS models, the reward was lots of Federal Funding under the Pathways to Industry scheme and included “feel good” and peer pressure. And because many of these attempted to reach a very wide number of participants the EMS’ over simplified and frequently omitted systems which unfortunately omitted the major rewards an EMS can bring. 

This has not been the case in city based management systems because of the lack of funding but many introductory environmental approaches have been run by local government and business groups by personnel without a full understanding of the benefits of systems or the fact that they can be kept simple. A real benefit of the ISO 14001 model is improved relationships with neighbors and regulators once they realize that you are serious about reducing your environmental impacts. Often the neighbors really don’t understand what a new or different business does so they feel threatened by it and because many of their concerns are not real, the communication built into an EMS and especially ISO 14001 can really help reduce this problem. 

In a number of cases, a certified ISO 14001 environmental management system has been what was needed to assist businesses to win court cases where misguided or ill informed pressure groups were challenging the their right to operate their business on so called environmental grounds. I have been involved in assisting several businesses in this situation from varied industries. Some EMS programs, especially in the Australian seafood industry have concentrated on their community interaction and had little real impact on the on-boat and even less on the on land based practices of some fishers involved so the rewards have been less even though the time input into all the community meetings has been high. 

Of course, the fact that not everyone had changed their practices was noticed and did impact on community perception. The legal compliance requirements in ISO 14001 are important in providing protection to a business from accidentally breaching the law or allowing one of their employees or subcontractors to do so. Owners and directors are increasingly being fined and even jailed because of problems their staff have caused. A robust due diligence defense is a worthwhile reward. Some of the best rewards are the real savings and increased profits as a result of less waste and greater business efficiency as the business becomes more sustainable. This comes from having a management system rather than from checklists and plans. Plans need ongoing review and feedback so they do not just remain on a shelf. Certification may well be important for some businesses and this will increasingly be the case. There are alternative certifications like EnviroCert with a slightly scaled down ISO 14001 audit designed for the smaller businesses and still certified by the same qualified auditors. 

My own experience of having had in-house ISO systems for many years is that the imminent arrival of the auditor at my expense is a reminder that tomorrow is coming in a few days and I cannot delay those things that we all do delay occasionally. I am a fan of external audits for bringing real business benefits. Regulatory relief, public recognition and preferred supplier status are all important in some markets where having an ISO 14001 certification enables the business to be considered for certain government tenders and the certification can give a real credibility boost over those competitors who are claiming green without any means to justify this. 

Marketing image is vital to some businesses and the clamp down on “greenwash” by the ACCC has helped many businesses with certification to differentiate themselves. It is not legal to use terms like eco, enviro or environmentally friendly unless you can prove this is justified and use of emotive animal images in marketing is also illegal unless they have some relevance. ISO 14001, which is the only internationally recognized EMS certification Returning to the original question of “Are there real business benefits of ISO 14001”; I believe is best answered by helping people understand that to be most effective an environmental management system needs to consider as wide as possible a range of environmental impacts in their business and include a system to manage these which includes feedback and review. The best way to do this is with recognized certification.

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