Using an environmental management system to develop and implement a sustainability program

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Sustainability is not just a buzzword for companies to say they are “going green,” it is now widely understood to be an effective business practice that can positively influence the environment and save money. The difficulty in implementing a sustainability program is finding appropriate resources and identifying and setting priorities consistent with an organization’s environmental policy.

Developing a Formal Sustainability Program

Starting a sustainability program from scratch can be a challenging process, especially for organizations without a structured environmental management framework in place. Organizations that have already implemented an environmental management system (EMS), should have the necessary management framework, shared commitment, and programs to successfully implement a sustainability program without much additional effort. There are many reasons for a company to develop a formal sustainability program. A company using sustainable business practices will reduce their impact to the environment, improve employee and community relations, and save money. The program can also be used to market a company’s products and services to environmentally conscious parties.

Sustainability is generally defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”1 A sustainability program generally encompasses several of the following areas: greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory/carbon footprint, energy management, water savings, transportation, sourcing and recycling, stormwater management, and sustainable design. This covers most, if not all, of a company’s operations and, as such, requires the input and cooperation of a wide array of people throughout the organization for a sustainability program to be effective.

An EMS, especially one that conforms to the ISO 14001:2004 Standard,2 can assist sustainability efforts by providing a structured program to clearly define responsibilities, objectives, and procedures. The environmental policy at the heart of an EMS should help frame a sustainability policy and communicate the policy to all interested parties, both internal and external. Having an EMS in place will help determine sustainability goals, develop applicable procedures, outline a clear path for allocating resources, and provide a method for documenting and tracking improvements.

Implementation Steps for Success
Many EMSs are implemented by organizations seeking to more effectively maintain compliance with environmental regulations and other requirements. Additional benefits of an effective EMS include the broadened environmental awareness throughout the organization’s top management, employees, and those working on its behalf consistent with the organization’s environmental policy and significant environmental aspects and impacts. An ISO 14001-conforming EMS is expected to show continual improvement using a “plan, do, check, act” model. These elements are fundamental actions of a successful sustainability program.

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