Last reviewed 25 July 2017

Organisations must make the transition from the 2004 version of ISO 14001 to the revised ISO 14001:2015, or risk losing their current certification in September 2018. In this article, John Barwise summarises the main changes to the environmental management system (EMS) standard, with comments from leading EMS experts and examples of how the new standard works in practice from three UK organisations that have made the transition.

The international EMS standard, ISO 14001, is the world’s most popular environmental management standard, with a global reach of over 300,000 certified organisations and over 16,500 registered in the UK.

A new version of the standard, ISO 14001:2015, was published in 2015, allowing certified organisations three years to make the transition to the 2015 version of the standard. Certification to the old 2004 standard will cease to be valid after 15 September 2018.

Summary of key changes

ISO 14001:2015 provides organisations with a more strategic and integrated approach to EMS implementation, with greater emphasis on leadership and commitment. The main changes include the following.

  • High Level Structure (HLS) — the revised standard incorporates a common framework that is compatible with other ISO management system standards, such as quality management system, ISO 9001. The HLS provides a common table of contents, common terms and core definitions that apply to other ISO management system standards.

  • Strategic environmental management — Clause 4 introduces a new requirement for an organisation to understand the “context” in which it operates to identify what internal and external issues are prominent across activities, products and services. This helps define the scope of the EMS, in terms of an organisation’s physical and organisational boundaries. Context also relates to managing expectations of interested parties.

  • Leadership — Clause 5 assigns specific responsibilities for those in “top management” leadership roles to have a greater awareness and understanding of environmental sustainability and to promote environmental management within the organisation.

  • Environmental protection — protecting the environment by preventing or mitigating adverse environmental impacts is a core aim of the revised EMS and should be included in an organisation’s environmental policy. It also requires organisations to consider what external environmental influences might impact on them — including for example, climate change and resource scarcity.

  • Aspects, impacts and managing risks — stronger emphasis on identifying and evaluating negative environmental aspects and impacts associated with activities, products and services associated with the operations of an organisation, including the risks that give rise to negative environmental impacts, as well as those relating to positive impacts.

  • Environmental performance and compliance obligations — the new standard goes beyond performance of the EMS to include other performance criteria, for example, reducing emissions, effluents or waste, as defined by the organisation. The old term “legal requirements and other requirements,” has been replaced with a requirement to “fulfilment of compliance obligations,” including periodic evaluation of compliance.

  • Life cycle perspective — the revised standard takes account of the “life cycle perspective” for activities, products and services over which an organisation has control and/or influence. Organisations are required to consider each stage of the life cycle in the design and development process for products and services. The standard stops short of requiring a full life cycle assessment.


Internal and external communication requirements are significantly enhanced in the revised standard, with more emphasis on ensuring the reliability and consistency of detailed environmental information in communications.

The changes to ISO 14001:2015 are covered in more detail in Croner-i Environment and Sustainability topic ISO 14001.

What the experts say about the transition

Martin Baxter, Chief Policy Advisor at IEMA and Chair-elect of ISO’s Environmental Standards Committee, says the revised standard puts environment at the core of business strategy.

“The revised standard significantly raises the bar on the expectations it sets for how organisations manage their environmental performance. The new ISO 14001 shifts business focus on the environment from compliance with regulations and direct operations, to placing the environment at the heart of their thinking and strategy.”

Frank Inglis, Sustainable Business Systems Manager at the Forestry Commission argues that an EMS is more than just a documented system that creates a set of checklists.

“If you are using the standard in the right way, it should be a framework that sits on top of your actual business activity and be actively used to add value by improving processes in use, not create a lot of new ones just to meet the requirements of the standard itself.”

Jon Murthy, Marketing Manager at the UK Accreditation Service (UKAS), says accredited certification bodies are actively engaged in the transition process.

“Transitions to revised standards is a core function that UKAS manages on an on-going basis. The transition of UKAS accredited certification bodies is progressing well and they are being guided to ensure they achieve transition at as early a stage as possible.”

Emily Hill at environment and quality consultancy firm Qualsys, says that a large number of firms are making the transition this year.

“I would say most people want to get it right the first time so they are taking their time to make sure it is done properly. Some of the changes take a long time to implement properly and I think EMS managers recognise this.”

William Yonge, Environmental and Quality Specialist at business systems specialists, PCSG Limited, has been involved with six transitions across a range of industry sectors.

“Most people involved with the 2015 standard are aware of the need to consider the context of the business in the wider environment, and associated risks and opportunities, as well as the impact of the business’s activities on the environment. The challenge has been in linking these identified risks, opportunities and context into meaningful objectives and actions, and then how to monitor and measure environmental performance in addressing these. By getting this part right in the transition period, it will ensure the new standard is implemented effectively beyond transition.”

Making the transition — how it works in practice

There is no official data on the number of organisations that have made the transition to the new ISO 14001:2015 EMS standard, but anecdotal evidence suggests many that are certified to the 2004 version of the standard have either made the transition or are in the process of doing so.

Below are three examples of UK organisations that have made the transition and their experience in doing so.


Overbury is a UK leading fit out specialist with offices nationwide and over 500 employees. The company was the first company in the UK to achieve certification to the new ISO 14001:2015 standard through the British Standards Institute (BSI).

The environment team and the quality team led the process and worked to implement the new ISO 14001 and 9001 standards in tandem as they are structured similarly, making it easier to align the new management systems right from the outset.

Liz Collett, Environmental and Sustainability Manager says ISO 14001 has become essential to driving environmental performance improvements within the business.

What were the main challenges to implementing the revised standard?

We were aiming for tight timescales as we wanted to achieve certification as soon as possible and, although this kept us focused, it did mean that there was very little room for error. Changes also bring challenges about how to document the new system which can definitely be tricky to navigate. Similarly, understanding of the “context” clause is an important part of this as there are a number of internal and external factors that could affect our business.

What have been the main benefits?

The new ISO 14001 standard has provided a number of great outcomes. When tendering for work, Overbury is now able to better demonstrate itself as a market leader, being the first company in the UK to achieve this standard. With sustainability continuing to be a hot topic, this is definitely a critical advantage for us with clients and stakeholders. In general, our systems and processes have also seen an improvement. As a result, our ability to focus even more on delivering better experiences for our clients has been seriously improved, a top priority for Overbury.

Would you recommend others to engage in the transition process?

Having the support and guidance of a professional certification body like the BSI has been a fundamental part of delivering the new standard, especially as they understood it inside out. I would recommend looking at the transition as a chance to have a good look at your system and make sure it is delivering as much value as possible.

Useful lessons

For companies who still need to transition, I would recommend you don’t leave it to the last minute. It can take some time to develop the new processes and get them properly embedded. Get involved and take the time to understand what value the standard can bring to your company. Based on our experience, I have no doubt that it will make a hugely positive difference.

Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU)

MMU is one of the largest campus-based universities in the UK and was ranked as one of the greenest by the student-led group, People & Planet. In 2016, MMU achieved EcoCampus Platinum and ISO 14001:2015, at the same time.

The university has been active in environment and sustainability for a number of years. It has an environment strategy and policy in place with commitment from senior managers and a well-resourced environment team to manage the EMS and related issues.

MMU was the first university to make the transition to the new ISO 14001:2015. Certification group NQA undertook the transition assessment over three days.

Helena Tinker is MMU’s Environment and Energy Systems Manager.

What were the main challenges to implementing the revised standard?

Manchester Met was the first university to be externally audited and achieve the standard. We had no prior knowledge or understanding of how our external auditors would assess our approach. Fortunately, we had a very successful audit and shared our experience with many other universities going through the transition process.

What have been the main benefits?

The requirement for senior management commitment helps ensure sufficient resources are in place to manage and improve environmental performance. The new monitoring and measurement requirements ensure robust KPIs are in place to review performance and continually improve environmental performance. Undertaking a PESTEL analysis as part of the context analysis requirements, helped identify future risks and opportunities and ensured plans were in place to address them.

Would you recommend others to engage in the transition process?

The new standard is more flexible and allows an organisation to adopt a more strategic approach to environmental management.

Useful lessons

Ensure your EMS is led from the top and embedded into your organisations existing systems and processes.

Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS)

GMFRS aims to “protect and improve the quality of life of the people in Greater Manchester”. Sustainability is one of its core principles along with safety, partnership and inclusivity.

The organisation has an environmental policy and included in its sustainability strategy is a commitment to net positive carbon footprint, zero waste, zero pollution, zero waste water and leadership on climate change and environmental best practice.

Haley McDowell is Associate Partner — Sustainability at GMFRS.

What were the main challenges to implementing the revised standard?

We have always been fortunate in having very supportive and environmentally engaged management so this made the transition process a lot easier. However, one of the main challenges we face is consideration of the life cycle perspective of our environmental aspects. For us, this comes down to the goods we procure and how we can work with our suppliers to help them deliver their service or manufacture their product in a more environmentally sustainable and socially ethical way considering the whole life cycle of that commodity.

What have been the main benefits?

To address new requirements like our context, risks and opportunities and engaging more broadly with interested parties, we held several workshops with our top table senior management. Doing it this way meant it was easier to integrate new requirements into our existing business processes and assign ownership to the relevant roles in the organisation from the beginning as they had been instrumental in the revised EMS development.

Would you recommend others to engage in the transition process?

ISO 14001:2015 covers a more holistic view of sustainability within organisations. Previously, the focus of ISO 14001 was on how an organisation could impact on the environment and ways to mitigate this. The revised standard still considers this but also how social and environmental change can impact on business success. It can now be seen as a framework for risk management as well as environmental protection.

Useful lessons

For successful implementation of ISO 14001:2015, it is key to get support from leadership and other relevant areas of the organisation from the beginning of the transition process. This then re-enforces that the EMS is the responsibility of all staff and not just a project belonging to the environment team.