In the Lab

Study Concludes Environmental Management Systems Can Boost Performance, Compliance

Formal environmental management systems (EMS) can improve the environmental performance of government units and businesses, as well as their operating and management efficiencies, a major new study concludes. Sometimes, the organizations' compliance with various regulations also gets better.

"These results are more likely for facilities that are subsidiaries of publicly traded corporations, owing to their greater resources, but they also occur in privately held and government facilities," said Dr. Richard N.L. Andrews of the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. "The evidence suggests that these systems are highly variable in their content, priorities and judgments of what is important.

"The existence of certification of an EMS per se does not necessarily provide any clear information, or information comparable to other facilities, however, about the facility's actual environmental performance, compliance or rate of improvement."

Andrews, professor of public policy at the UNC College of Arts and Sciences and of environmental sciences and engineering at the school of public health, and colleagues conducted the first-of-its-kind study for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Wastewater Management, with additional support from EPA's Office of Policy, Economics and Innovation. Also involved in the five-year project were 10 state environmental agencies, the Environmental Law Institute, the Multi-State Working Group on Environmental Management Systems, the Star Track Program of the EPA's Region I and the Global Environmental Technology Foundation.

"Environmental management systems identify what a company or other organization is going to try to do to protect the environment, to improve its performance and then to carry through on that," Andrews said. "They involve identifying what they do to the environment, training people to fix it and preventing problems from happening again. The most elaborate involve third-party certification with auditors coming in annually to see whether the system works or not."

In their unique investigation, known as the National Database on Environmental Management Systems study, the UNC-led team worked with 83 facilities in 17 states. Those programs ranged from big manufacturers, electric utilities and small businesses to military bases and municipal water treatment plants.

Researchers asked what the organizations -- to whom they promised anonymity -- were doing, how they created their EMS system, what steps they took previously and what happened since the system was in place.

"We got generous cooperation and found enormous variation in what the facilities actually did," Andrews said. "Some focused on major environmental problems, such as hazardous waste, while others used them simply to train employees to be more ecologically efficient with water, energy and materials to save themselves money."

Overall, most organizations said they were glad they developed their EMS, and 86 percent reported that they had reaped benefits from them, he said.

That does not mean they were in perfect compliance with environmental standards or were superior across the board.

"When people get an international ISO 14001 certification, they get to advertise that they are certified, which implies better performance in some way than their competitors," Andrews said. "That may or may not be, since certification doesn't tell you whether they perform better than other comparable facilities or organizations."

Introducing an EMS cost an average of $40,000, he said. Public-sector EMS expenses could be cut through government assistance programs aimed at developing and distributing EMS models, or templates, for others to follow.

Generally, EMS had positive effects on facilities' environmental performance, which makes sense, but which had not been confirmed before through careful study, he said. While big, publicly traded corporations fared better with EMS since they had more money and staff, government and smaller independent operations used them to build previously unavailable capacities to do a better job.

"One small independent supplier of parts for the automobile industry put in an EMS to help define themselves as a leader in their own small area," Andrews said. "That did not have any big economic benefit, but it positioned the company to maintain its market share with a major customer and possibly enlarge it. They also simply thought it was the right thing to do.

"We also found that these systems had positive effects for government facilities, such as wastewater treatment plants and other municipal government operations, as well as military bases."

Big corporations mainly developed the ISO 14000 system for business use, but it appears beneficial for other kinds of organizations as well, he said.

"Putting in systems like these is not without cost, and it takes a lot of work to do it," Andrews said. "The EPA and state agencies are beginning to reward such efforts as a mark of good behavior. The assumption is that an environmental management system is going to lead to better performance, and agencies can reward companies that have done it in various ways, such as giving them greater regulatory flexibility."

Andrews and colleagues have begun related research surveying several thousand U.S. companies supplying the auto industry to see what difference it makes to firms when their industrial customers require EMS. For further information, contact Dr. Richard N.L. Andrews at 919.843.5011 or visit

This article originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 14, No. 3, p. 10.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2003 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Heida Diefenderfer is a research scientist and diver with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Marine Science Research Operations in Sequim, Wash. ( She served on the Northwest Maritime Center dock design team and as Battelle's project manager for the site surveys and eelgrass restoration. As a biologist with PNNL's Coastal Assessment and Restoration technical group, Diefenderfer conducts applied research for state and federal agencies and other partners for near-shore, wetland, and watershed assessment and restoration.

Featured Webinar