Our Readers Talk Back About EMS Value

The February 2004 Manager's Notebook (available online at no charge at under "Archives") that focused on the value of environmental management systems provoked an outpouring of readership response from around the world. In this September issue, we examine the underlying factors that may have produced this flood of feedback and provide excerpts from some of the e-mail correspondence.

Over the past decade I have written more than a hundred articles for various magazines, journals, and Web sites. Many have evoked responses from readers, but nothing compares to my February 2004 Manager's Notebook article on environmental management systems (EMSs). I received comments from as far away as Australia and South Africa and it has been translated into Japanese and posted on the Web. 1 Comments came from consultants; editors; corporate environmental, health, and safety (EHS) managers; and government employees.

Excerpts appear later in this article. Titles and organizational affiliations are in most cases included; however, please recognize that their comments may or may not reflect their organization's official position. Suffice to say that these are all senior and well-respected EHS professionals -- in fact, you may recognize some of the names. Prior to publication, they were given an opportunity to review this article. Again, just because they reviewed it does not imply that they agree with what I stated in this article.

Whew! I'm starting to sound like a lawyer. Somebody help me!

So, what's going on here? First of all, the vast majority of the feedback was extremely positive. I've edited out all of the laudatory comments in the "Readers Respond" section, but here is a sampling: "Hooray!!!!! Hats off to you for speaking so firmly and brutally" and "Kudos to you! It is the best article on ISO 14001 EMS I have read in a long time." I would quote others but my massive ego and sheer brilliance are exceeded only by my modesty. (Reminder to self: Take medication soon.)

There were, however, challenges falling into two broad categories: (1) technical disagreements such as the difference between ISO 14001 and the Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS), which is popular in Europe, and the original intent for these systems; and (2) objections to the contention that an EMS adds little value.

Several of the people who responded were literally there when ISO 14001 and EMAS were created. I dumped both standards into the same category, when, in fact, they have distinct differences, especially with respect to disclosure, employee involvement, and verification. I should have been more precise.

With respect to my statements on the value of performance- vs. conformance-based EMS, this issue continues undiminished. Edwin Piñero recently addressed the issue head-on and concluded the "shortcomings of an EMS may be in large part, rooted in misunderstanding and misuse.... The inherent commitment to continual improvement, if done properly, will drive an EMS to improved performance." 2 Emphasis added.

Therein lies much of the problem. As Piñero implies, even a conformance-based system can deliver performance, but that is not necessarily the way that these systems are being implemented in practice. There are great companies and government organizations doing great things that abide by the letter and spirit of EMAS, ISO 14001, the Responsible Care program promoted by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), and/or their own custom-designed system. But then there are also organizations out there that are totally gaming the system for marketing or public relations purposes.

For example, the Responsible Care program was losing public and agency credibility because of the unevenness of implementation: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The ACC, to its credit, finally decided to mandate independent verification and greater public reporting.

Adding to the confusion have been consultants who have sold (and oversold) these systems on the promise that they will improve EHS performance and business value, far beyond what might be expected from a conformance-based system. Indeed, they have been promoted beyond what any system could deliver when business support is problematic.

This leads to the second group of challenging feedback: the objection to my implied message that EMSs do not add value and drive performance improvement. Individuals offered as proof their direct experience wherein their EMS was instrumental in their organization's environmental successes. But EMS successes in some organizations do not prove that an EMS will add business value in other companies. Indeed, if improperly implemented, as is sometimes the case, an EMS could actually subtract value. As already pointed out, it's all in the execution.

Whither from Here?
We as environmental professionals must look beyond the case studies of highly successful EMSs and acknowledge that there is something amiss. Why? Because if the public, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and/or government agencies become cynical about organizations with a certified EMS, the distrust will hurt every organization. We need to view the situation as it is and deal with problems instead of assuming that they will go away or that they are trivial.

The problems are well documented. A good summary can be found in the 2003 European Association for the Coordination of Consumer Representation in Standardisation (ANEC)/European Environmental Bureau position paper on EMS.3 The problems extend beyond the implementation of EMSs and include the accreditation and registration structure. A thoughtful analysis of just one dimension to these problems -- differences between American and European and ISO 14001 accreditation requirements -- was provided by David Burdick in 2001.4 This is just a tiny sampling of the published literature, but it is dwarfed by the upbeat sales pitches of the consultants and certifiers and the company testimonials.

Human nature is such that people make the effort to comment if they strongly disagree with something rather than if they agree. My take on the deluge of mostly positive reaction to the February article is that the subject struck a widespread (literally a world-wide) chord with environmental professionals. In other words, there are a lot of people out there in environmental land that clearly recognize that EMSs have some very real problems, and they are frustrated that nothing significant seems to be going on to fix the situation.

It is time for the proverbial "powers-that-be" and the "adults-in-charge" to deal with these issues with a sense of urgency. If not, at some point in the future the issue will take on dimensions similar to the accounting scandals. The claim, "We were just following generally accepted accounting principles. We did nothing wrong," held no currency for the corporations that were melting down. Today companies point to their certifications as proof of their commitment to sound environmental management. Certification is a valid indication of environmental commitment in some companies, but it is a total sham in other companies. This fact endangers all companies and may lead to another round of public mistrust and regulatory intervention.

Readers Respond
The following letters were sent in response to the February 2004 Manager's Notebook column. Stevens Publishing Corporation is not responsible for the accuracy of the data or the validity of the readers' opinions expressed herein.

The push for EMS certification in Australia has been such that most people don't want to listen to the concerns you expressed. It is an issue I have raised with clients for some time.... Inevitably the people auditing on behalf of the certification bodies also do not look at what is actually occurring on the factory floor, concentrating instead on a paper trail and written procedures.

Frank Fleer
Managing Director
AWN (Air Water Noise) Consultants
Victoria, Australia

It is important to remember that the environmental management system standard ISO 14001 was, after some lengthy discussion, neither intended nor written to be a performance standard. That is and continues to be the thorny distinction. Mistaking that leads to the wrong prognosis. Not coincidentally, the "criticisms" of Riva Krut were that she (as well as many other participants and observers of the standards-writing effort) insisted that the international EMS ought to be performance based, and then proceeded to attack the document because it was not. No one, to my recollection, ever suggested or tried to argue that Riva was wrong in her evaluation -- that certification to the standard by itself would not insure improved performance or legal compliance. This extremely important point is always lost in discussions about the subject.

Current thinking, little changed since 1997 but supported by more evidence, is that ISO 14001 is an excellent process standard, which enables organizations to address their environmental aspects in a systematic way and to improve their environmental profile, if that is what they wish to do.

The elephant in the closet at The Auditing Roundtable conference, in my opinion, was and continues to be the failure of the certification auditors assembled there to address serious conflicts of interest, perceived and real, between consulting with firms on EMS and independently certifying them to 14001.

William D'Alessandro
Crosslands Bulletin
Amherst, N.H.

Even ISO 14001 says you have to have targets and objectives aimed at continual improvement and pollution prevention. This doesn't mean you lose your certification if you don't meet those goals, unless you get a tough certifier -- which rarely ever happens.... Also, it's okay if you go from really, really bad to just really bad. That's continual improvement.... There is one good thing about EMAS, though, that isn't in ISO: You don't get a verification if the auditor spots any legal non-compliance during his spot-check review. But there is no duty to do a comprehensive review of legal compliance during the audit, nor does the standard say that you lose your verification if you get an notice of violation NOV later. Except for the public reporting and the regulatory compliance point noted, EMAS really doesn't do much more for you than ISO.

William R. Blackburn
William Blackburn Consulting Ltd.
Long Grove, Ill.

EMAS has historically been orientated toward improved environmental performance. OJ No. L114, 24.04.2001. Annex III, point 3.1 is the verbiage that auditors use to get improved environmental performance (reduced impact) from the organization. ISO 14001, even the new version, still allows continual improvement to be system improvement -- which was a concession to the American delegates who are strongly influenced by industry -- and their reluctance to design a standard that could force them to expend dollars for pollution control/avoidance equipment.... Thus, I conclude that EMAS is more effective in garnering environmental performance improvement (as opposed to system improvement).

That being said, the big unseen gorilla in both standards is the financial conflict of interest inherent in the system. A company that pays a certifier to register their system is not the same as an objective audit, and until that system is addressed, there will be little that standards can do to motivate environmental performance change.... There needs to be much more emphasis on sound environmental assessment, accurate environmental performance indicators, and competent assessment of regulatory compliance.

David Burdick
Sustainable Steps
Milwaukie, Ore.

There was an erroneous statement made in regard to EMAS: "The standards do not require firms to establish performance improvement goals; they only require that a process is created to facilitate this action"... EMAS states that the "environmental statement is to provide environmental information to the public and other interested parties regarding the environmental impact and performance and the continual improvement of environmental performance emphasis added of the organisation."... Thus, to state that specific performance improvement goals are not required to be established as part of EMAS is erroneous. Yes, the firm must have a procedure or process in place to facilitate this action, but the goals are expressly required to be identified, and also to be communicated to the public.

Michael S. Wenk
Manager of Regulatory Affairs
Eka Chemicals Inc.
Marietta, Ga.

... The clear vision of an EMS ... is what we need to do to succeed long-term. Unfortunately some senior managers and even the ISO registrars are missing your message so far. Hopefully they will read your article and find a new "EMS religion."

Rich Green

As one who has championed EMS activities since 1996, we did experience some missed opportunities early on in the development, but that's what continual improvement is all about. Today, EMS, if properly implemented and managed, can be used as a marketing tool to encourage other parts of an organization to implement proactive management systems that are designed to measure environmental performance, to enhance business decision-making, and to provide a foundation for continual improvement. However, one of the pitfalls is that, all too often, we implement EMS programs to comply with environmental laws and regulations instead of planning strategies to anticipate environmental issues.

The aspect analysis process allows the organization to look at environmental issues early and develop strategies to address them to better manage environmental risk. This is no different than what any other enabling or core business function does to manage their part of the business. Environment groups within organizations are just being asked to implement "good business practices."

An EMS, however, is like any other business system. It needs to be repeatable and done effectively and efficiently, and this involves paperwork. Ultimately, this will add to the bottom line. An EMS audit is not just looking at documentation, but more importantly it asks if there is a process in place and is it being followed. EMS audits are not compliance audits but system assessments. One looks at the trees and the other at the forest. One of the pillars of an EMS is continual improvement. By establishing achievable objectives, targets, and performance measures, an organization is able to accomplish these targets and move on to the remaining issues. This recurring process of setting and achieving goals enhances the EMS by improving overall environmental performance.

John Bridges
Director, Incident Management
Office of Emergency Preparedness
Washington, D.C.

I was interested in your paper because I learned that you have the same kind of problem with implementation of ISO 14001 as I see we have in Japan. There is no doubt that ISO 14001 was created and intended so as to help organizations improve their environmental performance. Confusion arises due to the misperception that the standard requires the process for enhancing EMS only in place.

But the process can be recognized as the process of enhancing EMS only when it has achieved improvement in environmental performance. And while certification by the third-party is a proof that the organization implements its EMS effectively, effective implementation means planned improvement has been achieved in environmental performance. For the stakeholders, the certification given to malfunctioning EMS is even fraudulent. No one can surely be benefited from the EMS which does not contribute to improvement of environmental performance.

Masaru Oka
Sunnyhills Consulting
Nagaya, Japan

What struck me was your description and its similarity to the EPA-sponsored National Environmental Lab Accreditation Conference (NELAC) program.... I've always asked the same questions when NELAC comes up as a topic. An example: "Has being NELAC accredited made your data 'better'?" Just having the question asked stuns most lab managers or quality assurance/quality control QA/QC coordinators who have been through the grueling process. After enormous investments in time (usually several years), where are the net gains? I'm usually shown a binder of corrective action reports. My question is then, "Does this binder reflect fewer incidents requiring corrective action, or is the only difference that you now fill out and collect pieces of paper?" At this point, whatever roundtable I'm at descends into arguments and hard feelings. And, of course, my simple questions never get answered.

Charles Lytle
Portland, Ore.

Providing performance EMS incentives to industry is something my colleague and I have been striving to accomplish for several years -- but to no avail! Sustainability -- "That's the way of the future!" -- is what we hear; but how do you get to a sustainable level without considering environmental performance? I guess those of us in the trenches will never know, since we are labeled as being "short-sighted" or unable "to see the whole picture."

Ken Barnes
Champaign, Ill.

I believe a famous management guru once said that you could get a flat concrete slab ISO certified as a life boat as long as you have the procedures to notify the next of kin. Your comments about continuous improvement is dead on. The business of auditing an EMS reminds me of the old total quality management TQM scam. When I was at a Fortune 500 company in the early '90s, the company spent millions of dollars on TQM and continuous improvement training. People were dragged out of their regular business meetings in order to do flow charts on TQM. The only one who got anything out of it was the TQM consultant. He now lives in a big mansion. One ISO 14001 auditor recently complained bitterly in a magazine article that he was starving because the Registrar Accreditation Board RAB would not make the use of RAB-certified auditors mandatory. He was looking for guaranteed employment.

Norman S. Wei
Union, Wash.

I wrote a series of articles on the whole issue of the Registrar Accreditation Board (RAB), the real value an accredited auditor brings, how the auditor accreditation process is an accident waiting to happen, and how prospective EMS auditors are brainwashed into thinking they will find work with their RAB certificates. I have worked for several of the RAB-accredited course providers who are overly close to RAB (none will admit it) and worked for several registrars as a contract auditor. But my real bread and butter is fixing some of the shortfalls "certified companies" have in their EMS and teaching folks who really want to get a handle on EMS using my real-life experience and screaming to them it's not about the audit numbers.

Gabe Crognale
North Andover, Mass.

I turned against "standards" in 1997 after hearing Amory Lovins in a lunch talk. His basic idea: we need radical innovation and huge efficiency increases to even approach sustainability. The false focus on "systems standards" only reinforces inefficient, non-performing practices, taking us away from a sustainability vision. It is a delusion that interferes with the marketplace in a negative way. Yes, EMS offered some job protection for EHS consultants and corporate staffs and it probably cleans up some bad clerical practices, but it's a pasta solution in an Atkins world. Performance only should be rewarded with certificates, etc. Even the government (EPA) seems to have gotten that right with its recognition programs.

John Laumer, Environment in Business

The only other positive thing that I can see that comes out of the ISO program is that it makes you take a look at all of your processes and monitor them on a regular basis for any changes. It helps me pay attention to detail. This is also helpful when monitoring your state regulations. One can fold the two together for a strong and complete EMS program. This is meant to be an inside view of the user that is responsible for compliance of the environmental issues of the facility level.

Daryl Robins
Yakima, Wash.

We (the EHS community) need to be "in tune" with business objectives (and strategies) to move out of senior management's perception that we are only about compliance and regulations. First, we must understand the strategy that the business executives have developed. Sometimes, this can be very elusive, as all we experience (for a strategy) is head-count reduction, cost-cutting measures, and fire fighting. The plan to grow the business is often obscured. We are worried that the axe is going to fall and we'll get caught on the treadmill and/or the business strategy is not communicated in a clear, understandable context to the lay people.

I have read the book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap?And Others Don't, which was written by Jim Collins, and realize there are no heroes. There are committed individuals who have helped create a sustainable business culture that continually improves upon itself. There is no room for individual egocentric agenda setting. Everyone has to be on the same page, or at least, in the same book!

Tom Eckhoff
Hackettstown, N.J.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2004 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Richard MacLean is president of Competitive Environment Inc., a management consulting firm established in 1995 in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the executive director of the Center for Environmental Innovation (CEI), a university-based nonprofit research organization. For Adobe Acrobat® electronic files of this and his other writings, visit his website at http//:www.Competitive-E.com.

Featured Webinar