ISO 14001 – The standard for more sustainability

Environmental awareness is nowadays present in the majority of economic sectors. Environmental friendliness and sustainability are no longer only of interest to zealous idealists. Nowadays, no company can afford to make environmental policy low-priority, even if it’s only in response to customer demand. Customers and investors are requesting more and more often that clear steps toward improving environmental balance be taken. To prove that environmental protection plays an important role in your own company, you can apply for ISO 14001 certification. Yet what requirements do you have to fulfill in order to obtain it?

The ISO 14001 standard: definition and explanation


ISO 14001: The 14001 standard contains guidelines for an environmental management system (EMS). Companies and other organizations can always improve their measures for an environmentally-friendlier work method and/or production by means of ISO 14001. The standard is devised in such a way that it can be applied regardless of company size and industry.

Many bigger companies nowadays install an environmental management system. In doing so they are attempting to organize and improve activities related to environmental protection within their operations. Theoretically, every company can use their own ideas and concepts for a good environmental management system. However, what is actually being done internally for environmentally-friendly production is then not transparent for external groups (customers, investors, creditors). And the effectiveness of these self-created environmental management systems can only be understood with difficulty by external parties.

For this reason, the International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) 14001 standard generally provides guidelines with which responsibilities relating to environmental sustainability can be sensibly organized. Anyone who has aligned their environmental management with this standard, can also apply for a certificate. Should a company pass the ISO 14001 certification, it can advertise worldwide with this distinction. This way it can also present itself to customers and business partners as a company that demonstrably supports environmental protection.

So that companies are continuously getting closer to their stated environmental objectives and consistently optimizing their system, ISO 14001 relies on the continuous improvement process (CIP) and the PDCA cycle. Both resources constitute simple tools for making steady improvements in quality to the environmental management system.

The first version of the standard was released as early as 1996. In 2000 and 2015 two revisions replaced older versions. Through the most recent revision, the standard was adapted to the High-Level Structure with which other ISO guidelines are aligned. Here is a matter of terminological and structural adaptations so that all standards are working with the same vocabulary. Now more than 350,000 companies worldwide are certified and work in accordance with the guidelines in ISO 14001.

Components of ISO 14001: Its content

The ISO 14001 standard consists of ten sections, whereby the first three only contain details on the document itself. The actual guidelines are listed starting in Section 4.

Organizational Context

In order to be able to introduce a well-functioning environmental management system, one must first deal with the framework conditions within their own company. For this reason, Section 4 requests that management consider all internal and external aspects that would be affected by an EMS. Documents must be issued in which all of the company’s environmentally-related aspects are listed. In particular, this comprises the work, manufactured products and the offered services themselves: To what extent do production and services have an effect on environmental balance?

Legal regulations can be part of the external context, but also the social situation, which includes customer opinion. Should a company neglect environmental protection, it can sometimes have devastating consequences.


Section 5 deals directly with the company’s management. The ISO 14001 standard stipulates that specific roles are to be assigned that focus on establishing an EMS. Furthermore, management should set a good example. Even with the behavior of upper management, it must be clear what value environmental protection has within the company.

Determining environmental policies is also part of management’s responsibilities. These outline the approximate direction of environmental protection within the company. They are considered the guiding principles for the entire company and emphasize the commitment to sustainability. Furthermore, they demand the continuous improvement of the EMS and the observance of all environmental legal requirements.


So that an environmental management system can function, risk and opportunities within the company must be identified. Then you can plan specific preventive measures: what you can do to minimize risks and increase opportunities. This also requires you to define specific environmental objectives. The defined objectives must be realistic and oriented toward conditions within the company. It is also important that the objectives are specific. Instead of working with vague visions, as is the case with environmental policy, clearly measurable specifications are needed for the environmental objectives.


The area of support refers to the required resources. An EMS can only be efficient if management makes available a sufficient budget, sound infrastructure and above all trained personnel. ISO 14001 thus requires adequate training for employees. This is because the defined objectives can only be achieved with the necessary expertise and the right attitude toward the subject of environmental protection.

The success of EMS depends on the commitment of both management and employees. At the same time, communication plays an important role. But not only is information sharing dealt with in this section. Communication must also be geared toward external parties.


The section on operational aspects addresses specific impacts of the work. Beyond the product life cycle, consequences for the environment should be analyzed. The objective should be to integrate a system for protecting the environment in every step.

The section likewise calls for preparing strategies for environmental emergency scenarios. Employees in dangerous situations should have recourse to suitable automatisms. Here too, the company’s circumstances play a role: different industries must deal with very different risks. In order to prevent emergencies, the company should also submit an emergency response plan.

Performance Evaluation

A company must constantly monitor its EMS. This includes regularly measuring and evaluation indicators. The ISO 14001 standard stipulates an internal audit for this. In this way management and staff can recognize problems in time and introduce countermeasures. So that the monitoring functions are effective, ISO 14001 states that you should define clear auditing standards and the regularity in which the checks are to be conducted. The collected data must then be documented and communicated internally (and, in part, externally)).


ISO 14001 stipulates that the environmental management system used by a company must be continuously optimized. This is the only way to ensure that the EMS obtains long-lasting good results. So that improvements are implemented in the right areas, any non-conformities should be noted. An important question to answer is: In which aspects does the actual EMS not meet the required demands? The answers to this question offer starting points for improvement measures.

ISO 14001 Certification

ISO 14001 provides companies with guidelines toward which a company can orientate itself when designing its environmental management system. Instead of venturing to attempt the implementation of the EMS system on its own, the company can rely on the internationally established standard. However, the guidelines also provide the opportunity for certification. With a certificate that proves adherence to the norm, one can show their commitment to environmental protection at the international level.

An ISO 14001 certification can be obtained from an independent verification authority. These exist in the form of private companies, but also as associations. Before you commission a certifier, you must align your environmental management system with ISO 14001, or even first install an EMS in your company. This is then checked in an (optional) internal audit for conformity with the standard. In doing so, you can simulate the actual audit via an independent third party, note possible errors and then eliminate these in advance. Many companies call in a third party for this step. They can not only look at the system objectively from the outside, but also provide valuable tips for improvement based on their experience.

The actual audit begins with a documentation review: ISO 14001 requires in many areas a thorough documentation. Environmental policies and environmental objectives, measurement methods, role allocation or the business concept are recorded in writing and presented to the certifier. The inspecting authority then checks if the company has fulfilled its documentation obligation and if the procedures described in the documents are compliant with the specifications.

Should the certifier notice smaller flaws during the audit, the company can correct these during a second step. However, should they notice serious errors, the certification process will immediately be terminated. If you pass the document review, the inspection’s second step occurs on-site. Here the auditor speaks with employees and examines the effectiveness of the EMS. In addition, review of the documentation takes place again, but this time it is more detailed. If one passes this step as well, they receive the desired seal.

However, the certificate is only valid for three years. Within this time period an annual surveillance audit takes place, though it is far less comprehensive than the first audit. After three years have passed, however, the certification process starts over again. Both audit steps must then be gone through again.

An ISO 14001 certification brings many advantages; however, it is also time and cost intensive. This doesn’t only begin with certifier costs. First of all, you must implement an appropriate environmental management system within your company. The planning work that is necessary for this most likely cannot be achieved by responsible employees alongside their original responsibilities. This is why during planning you should calculate using less in-house manpower. The partly-required documentation that must be prepared also ties up resources. How high the internal costs are is strongly dependent on existing structures within the company.

Finally, there are also costs for the audit itself. Here, certification authorities are guided by the specifications of the International Accreditation Forum (IAF). The costs are therefore not dependent on the company size and industry in which the business operates. Both factors affect the certification authority’s expenses. To save costs, different management systems can sometimes be certified at the same time: ISO 9001 (quality management), ISO 31000 (risk management) and ISO 50001 (energy management), for example, are very ideal for implementing together.


ISO 14001 certification is not a legal requirement. Each company can decide for itself whether it would like to introduce an environmental management system in accordance with the international standard. Nevertheless, there are laws that promote environmental protection within companies. ISO 14001 helps you meet these requirements.

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