Last reviewed 15 September 2015

The international environmental management system (EMS) standard, ISO 14001, has undergone a major review over the past three years. The changes, which were introduced in the revised edition on 15 September, are significant and affect more than 16,000 ISO 14001-certified organisations in the UK and over 300,000 organisations worldwide. John Barwise describes the main changes.

The revised contents of ISO 14001 aim to strengthen the role of leadership and introduces new requirements to enhance environmental performance, to manage supply chains and product life cycles, and to improve risk management.

High level structure

In parallel with the ISO 14001 update, the quality management system standard, ISO 9001, has also been undergoing major revision. Common to both updates is the inclusion of a generic high level structure (HLS), which provides a table of contents, and a glossary of terms and core definitions.

The purpose of HLS is to build compatibility between various management system standards to make it much easier to implement and integrate multiple ISO management systems. HLS still allows standards developers the flexibility of integrating bespoke technical topics and requirements into their specific management system standard — these are now included in relevant chapters as part of the generic HLS.

All ISO management systems will eventually incorporate HLS. An outline of the HLS contents is included at the end of this article.

Strategic environmental management

The revised ISO 14001 standard aims to ensure an EMS is aligned with the business strategies of an organisation. Clause 4 of the HLS refers to “Context of the Organisation”, which broadly means defining the context in which the organisation operates and what internal and external issues are prominent across activities, products and service delivery. This helps define the scope of the EMS in terms of an organisation’s physical and organisational boundaries, and includes control or influence over activities, products and services that can have a significant impact from a life cycle perspective. There is a strong focus on issues relating to the requirements and expectations of interested parties, including regulators, contractors and others, that the organisation considers relevant.


Leadership is defined in the HLS as “the person or group of people who directs and controls an organization at the highest level”. A new clause has been added to the standard that assigns specific responsibilities for top managers to be accountable for ensuring the effectiveness of the EMS. It is also the role of managers to establish an EMS policy, ensure objectives are aligned with business strategies and integrate environmental management into core organisational programmes. Senior managers are also responsible for communicating the importance of EMS, engaging directing with staff and promoting continual improvement and innovation.

Environmental protection

Protecting the environment by preventing or mitigating adverse environmental impacts is one of the core aims of the revised EMS and should be included in an organisation’s environmental policy. What defines environmental protection might include sustainable resource use, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and protection of biodiversity and ecosystems. This gives an organisation more scope to consider how to manage the impacts that a changing environment might have on an organisation.

Aspects and impacts — managing risks

The identification and evaluation of environmental aspects and impacts still focuses on activities, products and services associated with the operations of an organisation, but now includes a much stronger emphasis on identifying and assessing the risks that give rise to negative environmental aspects and related impacts, as well as those relating to positive impacts. The concept of risk management in the revised standard also goes beyond aspects and impacts to include legal and other requirements — now referred to under the heading of “compliance obligations” (see below). An effective risk management process requires an action plan that the management system will deliver.

Environmental performance and compliance obligations

Whereas previously, improving environmental performance could be interpreted as applying only to the performance of the EMS, the new standard allows for a much broader interpretation, consistent with policy commitments. This could, therefore, include reducing emissions, effluents or waste, for example, as defined by the organisation. Annex A.9 Guidance explains environmental performance evaluation and refers to ISO 14031 Environmental Performance Evaluation standard for more detailed guidance. There is also a stronger commitment to legal compliance, where the old terminology “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 current standard refers to managing environmental aspects associated with procuring goods and services. The revised standard takes a more holistic approach across the value chain and for organisations to consider a “life cycle perspective” for activities, products and services over which an organisation has control and/or influence. Consistent with a life cycle perspective, an organisation is 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. This is particularly important for externally reported performance data and information required for regulatory purposes. Annex A.7.4 requires that communications should be transparent, appropriate, truthful and factually accurate, and should not exclude relevant information.

Transition to the revised ISO 14001

ISO-certified organisations are being advised to start the process of transitioning to the new standard format as soon as practically possible. The International Accreditation Forum (IAF), which include the United Kingdom Accreditation Service, has published revised planning guidance for accreditation and certification bodies on the transitional arrangements for ISO 14001:2015 certification. ISO 14001:2004 certificates will not be valid after three years from the publication of ISO 14001:2015.

High Level Structure (HLS) Annex SL — a new template for ISO management systems

HLS is the new generic framework and contents for ISO 14001 and ISO 9001 and for future revisions of all other ISO management systems. An outline of the HLS contents is included below.


  1. Scope

  2. Normative references

  3. Terms and definitions

  4. Context of organisation

    4.1 Understanding the organisation and its context

    4.2 Understanding the needs and expectations of interested parties

    4.3 Determining the scope of the XXX management system

    4.4 XXX management system

  5. Leadership

    5.1 Leadership and commitment

    5.2 Policy

    5.3 Organisation roles, responsibilities and authorities

  6. Planning

    6.1 Actions to address risks and opportunities

    6.2 XXX objectives and planning to achieve them

  7. Support

    7.1 Resources

    7.2 Competence

    7.3 Awareness

    7.4 Communication

    7.5 Documented information

    7.5.1 General

    7.5.2 Creating and updating

    7.5.3 Control of documented information

  8. Operation

    8.1 Operational planning and control

  9. Performance evaluation

    9.1 Monitoring, measurement, analysis and evaluation

    9.2 Internal audit

    9.3 Management review

  10. Improvement

    10.1 Nonconformity and corrective action

    10.2 Continual improvement