How to implement ISO 14001 in 10 steps

Learn the 10 steps to implementing ISO 14001

As with all ISO management system standards, implementing ISO 14001 can be daunting if you have no experience of managing them. You may have purchased the standard and read it. While the language is relatively easy to understand, figuring out what you actually need to do and where to start is far from obvious.

However, with proper guidance and support, you will quickly unlock the meaning and find the best way for your organisation to reap the benefit of an Environmental Management System (EMS).

This section will provide a step-by-step guide on how to implement ISO 14001 in your organisation, covering everything from initial gap analysis to certification and ongoing maintenance. Whether you are new to ISO management systems and environmental management or looking to add ISO 14001 to your existing compliance system, this article will provide the information you need to get started.

The 10 steps are as follows

  1. Understanding where you’re starting from – gap analysis
  2. Understand your environmental aspects and related impacts.
  3. Understand your compliance obligations.
  4. Determine your risks and opportunities.
  5. Firm up your scope & decide on your objectives.
  6. Draft your action plan to achieve your objectives, mitigate your risks and reduce your environmental impact.
  7. Write your documentation and build your EMS.
  8. Implement your action plan drafted in step 6
  9. Operate your EMS – internal audits, measures, monitoring and management reviews
  10. Continuous improvement

Reading time: 7 minutes

Understand where you're starting from - gap analysis

Once you understand which requirements you already meet and those where you have gaps, the next step is to identify your “environmental aspects”, understand their “environmental impacts”. Environmental aspects are defined in ISO 14001 as the “element of an organisation’s activities or products or services that interacts or can interact with the environment”.

To form an ISO 14001 project plan, you need to be clear on the requirements you already meet, those that are partly met but not quite right, and those that are completely missing. Both from a documentation and undocumented work practices perspective.

The best way to complete a gap analysis against an ISO standard is to list all the requirements in a spreadsheet and go through them one by one to determine if and how you meet them.

We’ve saved you the trouble of doing that, download our ISO 14001 requirements checklist and determine what your starting position is.

Understand your environmental aspects and related impacts

An environmental aspect can cause (an) environmental impact(s). You must compile a register of environmental aspects. To identify environmental aspects for ISO 14001, we follow these steps:

  • Conduct a review of your business activities, products, and services. An easy way to do this is to map your processes at a high level and then go through each step asking:
    • Do the activities, products, services in this step interact with the environment in some way? E.g. what resources are used, is there water consumption, is there waste or by-product, pollution (including noise/light), emissions to air, emissions to land, use of space?
    • Does this step have different operational modes? E.g. normal, start-ups, shut-downs, maintenance, emergency situations – the environmental aspects and impacts may vary by mode.
    • Are there aspects that we don’t control but can influence? E.g. in the supply chain – they should be included in your own environmental aspect register.
    • How could climate changes impact on our business.

Understand your compliance obligations

The standard requires that you determine your organisation’s compliance obligations in relation to its environmental aspects. Using the register compiled in step 2, identify the legal, statutory, regulatory, contractual and voluntary obligations and create a compliance obligations register.

Examples of Voluntary obligations could be complying with ISO 14001 or signing-up to a trade body’s pledge committing your organisation to become net-zero by 2030. From Carbon reporting (e.g. SECR in the UK) to Waste licences and smoke control, the list of legislation with an environmental theme is long. In the UK you might find the site a good point to start.

Determine your risks and opportunities

Having compiled the environmental aspects and compliance obligations registers, you will now be in a position to establish what could go wrong (risks) and what opportunities for improvement could be seized. 

If you don’t have one already, you will need to establish a risk management framework and assess the risks, opportunities and the significance of the environmental aspects.  

Firm up your scope & decide on your objectives

Most ISO consultants will tell you that determining your scope is something you need to do at the beginning, not in step 5! And if your organisation is a large or multi-national organisation, then I agree, you’ll likely decide which country or plant or office is in scope right at the start. However, within that country/plant/office level scope, there may be some further breaking down of scope that makes sense for you.

You’ll only be in a position to confirm this once you have a clear understanding of your environmental impacts, obligations and risks across the whole organisation, which by step 5, you will have.

Depending on your objectives and the size of your business, you may decide to start by including only certain locations or groups of people in your scope of certification.

It might be better to start small, learn how to operate an ISO 14001-compliant environmental management system and subsequently enlarge the scope. Depending on the commitment of your top management, including the entire organisation might mean you’ll run into internal issues and certification might become complicated and be delayed. Particularly where resources are scarce.

Draft your action plan to achieve your objectives, mitigate your risks and reduce your environmental impact

For each objective, significant environmental aspect or risk, you need to have an action plan. It doesn’t need to be completed, just a few lines detailing what will be done, what resources you will need, who will be responsible, a timeline and how you’ll measure your progress is enough.

Write your documentation and build your EMS

I strongly believe that only the minimum amount of documentation should be written, only where it is necessary; and it should be written in a way that is meaningful to those who need it, i.e. your colleagues. Documentation should NOT be written or structured for the external assessors or internal auditors.

Having said that, there are certain things that must be documented, such as the environmental policy, the scope, a risk assessment procedure, environmental aspects, emergency response plans, etc. 

As with all other ISO management system standards, having a manual is not a requirement, however it makes sense to have one. You can think of the EMS Manual as the user guide for your management system. It’s useful for people internally so they can learn how to operate your management system; and it will be very useful during the external assessment audit to guide you in answering audit questions.

Implement your action plan drafted in step 6

Although a separate step, you will likely start implementing the plans drafted in step 6 at the same time as you write the documentation. Remember to keep evidence of having implemented the plan so you can demonstrate what you did to the auditor.

Evidence can be meeting minutes, emails, forms that have been completed, spreadsheet logs or reports for example.

Operate your EMS - internal audits, measures, monitoring and management reviews

Regular internal audits, measurements (e.g. environmental key performance indicators) and monitoring will help you verify if the policies and procedures are indeed reducing your environmental impact, managing risks, if people are following the procedures and if solutions are working.

Relevant people or groups in your governance structure will review the outcomes of audits, measures and monitoring and make decisions to keep the same controls in place or amend.

Continuous improvement

Steps 1 to 9 become a “business-as-usual” cycle and you have an EMS helping you achieve net zero!

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Elisabeth Belisle

Elisabeth is an Associate Consultant and Associate Tutor of the British Standards Institute (BSI), a BSI qualified Lead Auditor and member of the Standard Committee responsible for the publication of the BS 10008 Standard.

Elisabeth can help you decide if ISO 14001 is for you and support you through its implementation, all the way to certification.

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