This year marks the tenth anniversary of ISO 14001, the cornerstone of the ISO 14000 series of environmental management standards. It's an ideal opportunity to highlight the successful role that ISO 14001 has played in reducing the environmental impact of business during the past decade.
In point of fact, it has been more than a decade - ISO 14001 stemmed from BS 7750, the original British standard for environmental management systems (EMS), which was published in 1992. Having been involved in the development of BS 7750, I'm keenly aware of the evolution of environmental standards and it has been a remarkable journey.
ISO 14001 has been adopted by business rapidly over the past 10 years - as of the end of 2004, more than 90,000 ISO 14001 certificates had been granted in 127 countries.
For thousands of certified companies, ISO 14001 forms the basis of their environmental management system. It provides a way to evaluate performance and define policy, goals and targets to ultimately demonstrate to the market place a defined level of operation. Moreover, it represents a framework with which to assess a complete supply chain.
This is a key point and one that is often lost on corporations: some may view environmental standards as an expense to be paid, but there is a payoff in consumption of energy and reduction of waste, and it is positive for a business' brand.
Having introduced ISO 14001 in three companies during my career, it paid for itself rapidly and without exception. And ultimately, ISO 14001 keeps businesses conscious of their environmental impact, which can only be a positive thing. In the future, more and more environmentally-sensitive business factors will no doubt be identified. Building a business with the environment in mind will anticipate and minimize potential future costs, and will be the first step towards sustainability.
Fundamentally, ISO 14001 allows for rigorous analysis of a business or industry, how to change things accordingly, sometimes in unexpected ways, but always with a view to constant improvement. It provides an opportunity for companies to benchmark themselves against others in the industry, to discover examples of best practice and to ensure ongoing compliance in a changing marketplace.
Compliance is likely to be one of the biggest drivers behind the move to sustainability in business in the future, and of course, regulation will inevitably play a part, but the question remains over what type of regulation will work the best.
A certain level of prescription is required, for example, to define what substances are hazardous or have a negative impact on the environment, but standards should then set out the right steps to follow.
I accept the need for goal-based regulation, supported by voluntary standards that offer a demonstration of performance, as ISO 14001 provides for business. Third-party audits then provide a good picture of the success or failure of an organization's EMS, identifying areas for improvement and affording assurance that it is on the right track.
With this in mind, BSI has been lobbying the government for some time now to increase the awareness and use of standards in what is the UK's biggest supply chain - the government spends over £100bn each year.
The government has been encouraging regions to measure and demonstrate environmental performance, and ISO 14001 should play a pivotal role.
BSI is also encouraging an environmentally aware approach to new technologies, such as nanotechnology. BSI is a world leader in the development of standards surrounding the development of this technology, and one of the key targets is minimizing its environmental impact.
Standards also underpin the technologies for all key energy sources - fossil fuels, coal, oil, gas, nuclear and renewable sources such as wind and tidal. Energy remains a vital piece of the environment puzzle and BSI remains at the cutting edge of this fundamental area on a worldwide scale.
From business to government, from regulatory bodies to voluntary initiatives, managing the environment through standards like ISO 14001 is essential for the welfare of the generations to come. To date, nothing else has had such an influence on environmental performance worldwide. And that's a history we can all be proud of.
Mike Low is the director of BSI British Standards.