ISO 14001 standard for greater sustainability

Awareness of the value of the environment is now present in almost all sectors of the economy; the respect for the environment and sustainability are issues that now concern everyone. Indeed, also due to the changing needs of consumers, today no company can afford to put environmental policy in the background. Customers and investors are increasingly asking for significant measures to be taken to improve the environmental balance. To demonstrate your company’s attention to the environment, ISO 14001 certification can be requested, which testifies to the company’s commitment in terms of environmental sustainability. But which requirements must be met to obtain it?


  1. The ISO 14001 standard: definition and explanation
  2. ISO 14001 requirements: the content of the standard
  3. ISO 14001 certification

The ISO 14001 standard: definition and explanation


ISO 14001: the ISO 14001 standard provides guidelines for the creation of an environmental management system (EMS). Thanks to this rule, companies and organizations have the right to constantly improve the measures to be implemented for a working method and production that are as environmentally friendly as possible. The standard was designed so that it can be applied regardless of the size of the company and the sector.

Today, many large companies are committed to creating an environmental management system , trying to organize and improve internal activities related to this theme. On a theoretical level, for a good environmental management it would be enough that each company independently developed ideas and concepts based on its context; but for external groups (customers, investors, creditors) what the company actually does in this area may not always be so transparent.

For this reason, the ISO 14001 standard of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) provides generally accessible guidelines with which the tasks relating to environmental sustainability can be organized in a manner appropriate to each company. The companies that conform their environmental management to this standard, therefore, obtain the ISO 14001 certification, which allows them to present themselves anywhere and in front of customers and business partners as companies committed to protecting the environment in a demonstrable way.

In order for companies to achieve their environmental objectives and constantly optimize their system, the ISO 14001 standard is based on the continuous improvement process and on the PDCA cycle . These are two simple tools aimed at continuously improving the quality of the environmental management system .

The first version of the standard was published in 1996, while two revisions were made in the years 2000 and 2015. The latest of these has aligned the standard with the High Level Structure , which is also inspired by other ISO standards. These are adjustments at a conceptual and structural level so that all standards are uniform. Over 350,000 companies worldwide currently have ISO 14001 certification.

ISO 14001 requirements: the content of the standard

The ISO 14001 standard consists of 10 sections, the first three of which contain purely explanatory information on the standard itself. Starting from the fourth section, the actual requirements are listed instead.

Context of the organization

In order to implement a functional environmental management system, you must first take into consideration the general conditions of your company. Section 4 therefore invites management to consider all internal and external aspects affected by the EMS. Relative documentation must be prepared which lists all the aspects relating to the corporate organizational context, in particular with respect to the work, products and services provided: what is the environmental impact of production and services?

In the external context the legal norms can fall , but also the social situation and therefore the opinion of the customers. If the environmental protection aspect is ignored, there can be devastating consequences for a company.


Section 5 directly concerns the company’s top management. ISO 14001 provides for the assignment of certain roles aimed at establishing an EMS. Leaders should set a good example first. It is up to the company management to clarify what value the protection of the environment has for the company and also to define the environmental policy , which will act as the general objective of the EMS, acting as a guideline for the entire company and underlining its commitment to sustainability. This also includes the promotion of the continuous improvement of the EMS and compliance with all legal requirements regarding environmental protection to which the company is subject.


In order for an environmental management system to work, risks and opportunities within the company must be identified. In this way it is possible to plan preventive measures in a targeted way, defining what must be done to minimize risks and increase opportunities. This also includes setting concrete environmental objectives . The objectives set must be concrete, realistic and adapted to the business circumstances. While environmental policy is based on more general visions, environmental objectives must include clearly verifiable data.


The support section refers to the necessary resources. An EMS can be efficient only if company executives make available a sufficient budget, adequate infrastructure and, above all, qualified personnel. The ISO 14001 standard therefore requires adequate training for employees, because only with the necessary know-how and the right attitude towards environmental protection can the set objectives be achieved.

The success of an EMS depends on both managerial commitment and employees. The communication plays an important role in this regard; in this section, not only the internal exchange of information is dealt with, but also external communication.

Operating activities

The section on operational aspects concerns the concrete impact of the work. The consequences for the environment must be analyzed during the entire life cycle of the product, with the aim of integrating an environmental protection system at each stage.

The section also provides for the development of strategies for hypothetical environmental emergency situations . Appropriate mechanisms should be introduced which employees can resort to in emergency situations. In this case too, the situation of the company plays an important role: different industries are facing very different risk situations. To prevent emergency situations from occurring first, the company should present a risk prevention plan.

Performance evaluation

A company must constantly monitor its EMS and this is done through the measurement and periodic evaluation of key indicators . To this end, the ISO 14001 standard provides for an internal audit that allows management and staff to promptly identify problems and initiate appropriate measures. In order for the monitoring functions to be effective, the ISO 14001 standard provides for standard checks to be carried out on a regular basis. The data collected must then be documented and communicated internally (sometimes also externally).


The ISO 14001 standard establishes that the environmental management system in force must be constantly optimized. This is the only way to ensure that the EMS achieves satisfactory sustainable results. In order to make improvements where necessary, it is essential to identify non-conformities . The following question must therefore be asked: where does the EMS deviate from the requisites? From the answers to this question we can draw the starting points for implementing improvement measures.

ISO 14001 certification

On the one hand, the ISO 14001 standard provides companies with directives for designing an environmental management system. Instead of doing it on their own, companies can rely on an internationally tested standard and obtain certification that certifies compliance with this standard, demonstrating their commitment to environmental protection on an international level.

The ISO 14001 certification is issued by an independent certification body which must however be authorized by the Italian Accreditation Accreditation Body. Membership is not mandatory by law but, since the system was established in the company, everyone is required to comply with internal management policies, which are checked annually by the control body through audits aimed at verifying the concrete commitment to minimize the environmental impact of processes, products and services, attesting to the ISO 14001 mark the reliability of the applied EMS. Care should be taken in choosing the certification body since its seriousness, credibility and visibility become an aspect of fundamental importance towards the external market. The certification is paid and the fees of the various certification bodies are also a skimming element. The structure of the standard follows the PDCA (Plan Do Check Act) model.

The establishment of the Certification requires, as a first step (within the PLAN), the drafting of an environmental policy document that specifies the objectives that are intended to be achieved. The identification of resources, roles, responsibilities and authorities relating to the environmental management system is fundamental, or the identification of the Management Representative, who works in delegation to the CEO.

The preparation of a series of operating procedures follows, which constitute the reference processes of the EMS which also include the aspects of competence, training and awareness and internal communication (DO phase). The CHECK phase instead requires the establishment of actions and procedures and verification documents, to give evidence of the keeping under control of the effectiveness and correctness in the implementation of the management system.

The ACT phase   takes the form of a management review which is a periodic annual control procedure, which enters a series of system documents to assess whether the objectives have been achieved and possibly envisages the introduction of operational measures, in the form of of processes or documents, designed to ensure greater effectiveness and efficiency of the EMS.

This certification will have a three-year value . During this period, six-monthly or annual maintenance audits will take place. At the end of the three years, the company or organization must request a new audit to renew the certification.

ISO 14001 certification has many advantages, but it is also expensive in terms of time and money , and not only for the costs related to the certification body: first of all you must implement an environmental management system suitable for your company. The planning work required for this can most likely not be done by the responsible employee in addition to his or her actual job. During this planning, therefore, it will be necessary to take into account that fewer workers are available. The documentation to be prepared, partly complex, also affects the workforce. The magnitude of internal costs depends heavily on the structures existing in the enterprise.

Finally, there are the costs for the audit itself. The certification bodies are inspired by the directives of the International Accreditation Forum (IAF) according to which the costs depend on the size of the company and the sector . Both factors determine the extent of the work that the certification body has to do. To save costs, different management systems can sometimes be certified simultaneously, such as ISO 9001 (quality management) , ISO 31000 (risk management) and ISO 50001 (energy management systems).


ISO 14001 certification is not a legal requirement. Each company is free to decide whether to implement an environmental management system in accordance with international standards. However, there are legislative provisions that require compliance with environmental protection requirements in the company context; ISO 14001 allows us to satisfy them.


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