Environment & Sustainability

ISO 14001: The international standard for environmental management systems

Answering the most important questions

8 minutes02/03/2021

Active environmental management can help to reduce air pollution, preserve the natural environment, and reduce organizations’ overall environmental impact – ideally throughout their existence.

If you want to uncover the environmental weaknesses in your company and take targeted actions to remedy them, you will need to coordinate the corresponding measures via an environmental management system. What should companies know about the international standard for environmental management systems, the ISO 14001?

What is ISO 14001?

ISO 14001 is a global and sector-independent standard for the introduction and continual improvement of EMS in companies around the world. As a global standard, it offers an effective framework for working towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals. An environmental management system (EMS) makes it possible to push an organization to continually improve its environmental performance. It regulates the necessary processes, responsibilities and documentation and integrates the above aspects into a structured and systematic overall concept.

Good to know:

  • The ISO 14001 is not the only standard for environmental management in place at companies around the world. In fact, the ISO has issued an entire family of ISO 14000. Other standards can assist with the implementation of ISO 14001 (e.g. the guidelines of ISO 14004 and 14005) or the realization of specific requirements (e.g. ISO 14031 for environmental performance evaluations and ISO 14063 on environmental communication).

How is ISO 14001 structured?

ISO 14001 was introduced in 1996. Since then, the standard has been subject to regular revisions. In 2012, the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) introduced a uniform structure for all standards related to management systems, including the ISO 14001. This High-Level Structure (HLS) is comprised of ten clauses:

Clauses 1-3 contain introductory information about the standard, detailing:

  • the standard’s scope of application

  • normative references 

  • terms and definitions

Clauses 4-10 draw on the PDCA cycle (plan-do-check-act cycle) in order to outline the requirements of the management system in question

Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle in ISO 14001


Clause 4: Context of the organization

Analyzing internal and external topics of relevance for an EMS as well as any interested parties makes it possible to get an exact picture of the context of the organization. The next step is to determine the scope of the EMS and the processes it must take into consideration.

Clause 5: Leadership

Top-level management is not only responsible for defining environmental policy and establishing the requisite organizational structure. It must also demonstrate commitment and engagement by taking on additional duties. This includes supporting employees and their managers in implementing the EMS and introducing specific measures to promote continual improvement processes (CIPs).

Clause 6: Planning

This stage involves determining environmental risks and opportunities and deriving corresponding measures. In addition, the organization must identify and evaluate its environmental aspects, i.e. its interactions with and impact on the environment. Environmental objectives and measures must aim to address and reduce the impact of environmental aspects significant to the company. The organization must also analyze its obligations under environmental and other legislation and ensure it fulfills them.


Clause 7: Support

Needless to say, the necessary resources must be made available to support the EMS effectively. This also includes establishing and developing environment-related competencies. The organization must also define suitable processes for internal and external communication and ensure these processes are documented.

Clause 8: Operation

Environment-related processes must be guided by the objective of minimizing their environmental impact. While this includes in-house processes, it also extends to upstream, downstream, and outsourced processes as well as the processes of contractual partners, the entire value-added chain is scrutinized. It is also important to put measures in place to prepare for emergency situations.


Clause 9: Performance evaluation

By monitoring, taking measurements, performing analyses, and undertaking evaluations of key system parameters, the organization can determine the extent to which its environmental performance has improved. Conducting internal system and compliance audits and regular management reviews can also assist with this.


Clause 10: Improvement

By highlighting non-conformities and taking the necessary corrective actions, the aim in this stage is to continually improve both the EMS and environmental performance.

How long does it take to implement ISO 14001?

Experience shows that it takes around 12 months to introduce an environmental management system.

What steps are needed to implement ISO 14001?

Establishing and maintaining a management system always presents challenges for organizations. They need to designate certain persons responsible for specific aspects, develop and/or adapt their processes, ensure proper documentation and, if they wish to obtain certification, ensure conformity with the relevant underlying standard. For this reason, introducing a management system is a project in and of itself and should be treated as such. We recommend using the following steps when introducing an EMS:


  • Information/decision-making phase

  • Team-building and training

  • Project planning

  • Kick-off (information session for employees)


  • GAP analysis for ISO 14001 requirements vs. regulations of existing management systems

  • Monitoring implementation of actions

  • Internal communication of milestones reached


  • Internal audit

  • Obtain quotations for certification

  • Certification audit (separate or integrated)