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Despite green benefits and a laudable image, many firms buried under paperwork are not at all sure the new standard is worth the trouble. Here's a chance to exame the pros and cons.
Over the past decade, ecological questions have become a leading social concern and a strategic issue for many businesses. At first, industries' environmental commitment was prompted by regulatory constraints and social pressures, to which corporations adapted more or less "after the fact." Increasingly, however, businesses are asserting their role as responsible social players and regarding environmental concerns as an integral part of daily operations rather than an external threat with which they must contend.
This new logic is at the heart of contemporary environmental management systems (EMSs), which have spawned extensive thought about "green" management since the early 1990s. An EMS provides a firm with a highly structured framework for developing an environmental policy. The Responsive Care Program created by the Canadian Chemical Producers' Association, national environmental standards launched in numerous countries, and the Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) set in motion by the European Commission are all based on standardized, systematic management principles aimed at ensuring strict control of activities with a potential environmental impact.
The official launch in 1996 of the ISO 14000 series of standards is in keeping with this trend toward systematic, standardized environmental management practices. All-encompassing, these universal standards will likely mature into internationally recognized reference models, comparable to the ISO 9000 series of standards in the area of quality. We can thus expect to see industries expanding their use of them as an internal management tool or a supplier-selection criterion. Governments, banks, and insurance companies are also showing more interest in ISO 14001 as a means of verifying corporate liability in the environmental arena.
For companies like Alcan Smelters and Chemicals Ltd. (AS&C), which specializes in primary aluminum production and which participated in certain committees responsible for drafting the ISO 14000 series, the new standards raise a number of questions: What are the advantages of adopting the standards? What limits do they impose? Should AS&C start working immediately toward certification? Do the standards really improve environmental performance? The answers to some of these questions may be found in a study carried out at AS&C's plants in Quebec. As shown by the attitudes observed at these facilities, where management has devoted serious thought to the ISO 14000 series, stakeholders' opinions on the new environmental standards vary widely.
Toward an International Consensus on Environmental Management Systems
The unveiling of the ISO 14000 standards marked the conclusion of a long consultation process, begun in 1991 by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to study the development of worldwide standards in the area of environmental management. A framework for discussion was established with the creation of the Technical Committee on Environmental Management (TC 207), which was responsible for coordinating the efforts of groups of international experts and preparing the ISO 14000 series of standards. These standards were to cover various aspects of environmental management: EMSs, environmental audits, labeling, environmental performance evaluations, life cycle assessments, and terms and definitions. Only the ISO 14001 standard launched in the summer of 1996, however, features a certification (registration) process.
To achieve ISO 14001 certification, a company has to guarantee that its management system conforms to the principles defined under the standard. This compliance is verified by an accredited independent organization. ISO 14001, the most important of the series, is considered the reference standard in the area of environmental management. Although ISO 14001 essentially limits itself to reiterating certain traditional management principles (policy, planning, implementation and operation, checking and corrective action, management review, and continual improvement), a growing number of firms are expected to adopt it for various reasons.
First, there is a risk that flourishing local and national standards in the area of environmental management may constitute a barrier to growth in global trade. Since the early 1990s a number of countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Spain, Italy, and Ireland, have drafted national standards similar to ISO 14001. Enhanced transborder standardization has thus become essential if we are to avoid proliferation. The need for international environmental management standards was confirmed during the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations that got under way in Uruguay in 1986, as well as at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit on the environment and development.
Second, ISO 14001 is founded on principles similar (but not identical) to those underpinning the ISO 9000 series in the field of quality management. This symmetry should make it easier for companies that have already attained ISO 9000 certification or are working toward it to adopt the new environmental standard. Indeed, a growing number of organizations have set their sights on double certification. The Canadian division of Dyno Nobel, for example, one of the world's leading manufacturers of commercial explosives, began in 1994 to make health, the environment, and safety integral parts of its quality system by complying with ISO 9001. The company's main goal was to check the proliferation of procedures generated by separate management systems while working toward …