This toolkit provides guidance for implementing and certifying an EMS according to ISO 14001 Environmental Management Systems. It explains each of the main clauses of ISO 14001 and includes links to key references, templates and detailed information available on this product.

What is an EMS?

An environmental management system (EMS) is a structured set of processes and practices that can enable your organisation to reduce its environmental impacts, improve environmental performance and improve overall operating efficiency, in a systematic way.

ISO 14001:2015 Environmental Management Systems. Requirements with Guidance for Use is the most popular internationally recognised and certifiable EMS standard. ISO 14001 is applicable to all organisations and businesses, regardless of size and type and applies to the environmental aspects of all activities, products and services that the organisation can either control or influence, taking a life cycle perspective.

Why have an EMS?

All business activities, products and services have an impact on the environment. The business benefits of adopting an EMS include reduced risks of pollution and other environmental liabilities, improved environmental performance and productivity, fewer environmental impacts, lower environmental taxes and improved reputation.

Implementing an EMS demonstrates a high level of environmental commitment and a willingness to respond to the concerns and expectations of environmental regulators, investors, local communities and other stakeholders.

Plan, Do, Check, Act

Like most recognised environmental management systems, ISO 14001 has adopted the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle, which utilises an iterative four-stage approach to facilitate control and continual environmental improvement of management processes, practices, activities and, ultimately, products.

PDCA is a cyclical process that leads to continual improvement in environmental performance.

  • Plan — establish environmental objectives and processes to meet requirements set out in the organisation’s environmental policy.

  • Do — implement the processes as planned.

  • Check — monitor and measure processes against the policy, including environmental objectives, operating criteria, commitments and report the results.

  • Act — take action to revise or update objectives and other elements consistent with policy commitments for continual improvement.

How to implement your EMS

1. Set the scope of the EMS

Determine the scope of the EMS, ie what is to be included in it. This might include physical boundaries in which the business operates or its activities, products, or services – or all these. Businesses have the flexibility to decide its boundaries - it can include the whole of the organisation, or selected sections or functions.

It may be a useful exercise to consider the impacts of the organisation before deciding on the scope. It is also common practice to consider phasing in EMS implementation, particularly for SMEs who may not have the resources to complete the process in one go.

2. Establish the context of the organisation

Understanding the context in which your organisation operates provides a better understanding of those important issues that can affect the way the organisation manages its environmental responsibilities.

An Initial Environmental Review is not a requirement for ISO 14001 certification, but it will help define your organisation’s environmental policy. Use the Initial Environmental Review Checklist.

Issues relevant to the context of your organisation can be classified under three headings.

  1. Environmental conditions: climate change, air and water quality, land use, natural resource availability and biodiversity that can be affected by environmental aspects.

  2. External issues: legal, regulatory, economic, political or cultural.

  3. Internal issues: activities, products and services, strategic direction, culture and capabilities that may affect environmental performance.

If you already have an EMS, your organisation can use the context to determine to what extent it has:

  • incorporated environmental issues into the organisation’s EMS

  • integrated EMS requirements into its various business activities, products and processes.

3. Focus on leadership

Managers at the highest level in your organisation have ultimate responsibility for ensuring the effective implementation and maintenance of the EMS.

They must ensure that the environmental policy and environmental objectives are compatible with the context of the organisation. Leadership involves:

  • ensuring that the resources needed for the EMS are available

  • directing and encouraging staff to contribute to the effectiveness of the EMS and promoting continual improvement

  • supporting other management roles as applies to EMS responsibility.

4. Set your environmental policy

An environmental policy should incorporate a set of principles and objectives to:

  • protect the environment

  • comply with legal obligations

  • continually improve the EMS to enhance environmental performance.

5. Clarify roles and responsibilities

Staff should have a clear understanding of their roles, responsibilities and level of authority for conforming to the requirements of an EMS. Depending on the complexity of your business activities and processes, consider appointing an environment manager to oversee implementation and maintenance of the EMS, and to report to top management on progress.

Keep track of environmental responsibilities with these forms.

6. Consider risks and opportunities

ISO 14001 states that risks and opportunities should be incorporated in the planning process and should encompass:

  • environmental aspects and risks related to potential impacts

  • compliance obligations

  • other issues such as environmental conditions and the needs of interested parties.

Assessing the environmental risks and opportunities associated with aspects, compliance and environmental conditions may require detailed risk analysis and evaluation to determine their significance.

7. Identify your environmental aspects

All activities, products and services that interact with the environment are referred to as “aspects”: these may have a negative or positive impact on the environment. Identify the environmental aspects you can control such as:

Assessing the significance of environmental aspects of activities and processes and their potential impact on the environment will help your organisation to set priorities for taking action. Compile a register of aspects and impacts using the Environmental Aspect Evaluation Record.

8. Understand your compliance obligations

ISO 14001 certification requires organisations to comply with environmental legislation by integrating actions into the EMS and evaluating their effectiveness.

The guidance standard ISO 14004 recommends keeping track of legal requirements by establishing and maintaining a list or register of all regulations relating to activities, products and services.

9. Set environmental objectives and actions

Setting environmental objectives and taking action will ensure your organisation improves environmental performance and achieves the intended outcomes of the EMS. See Factsheet on delivering environment objectives and targets. Monitor progress with the Objectives and Targets Record.

Setting objectives may benefit from involving technical solutions such as best available techniques (BAT). For more information, see the BAT topic and the feature Applying BAT in the real world.

10. Provide adequate support and resources

Implementing and maintaining an EMS that delivers continual environmental performance improvement will draw on your organisation’s staff time and other resources.

Communicate clearly with employees to explain the purpose of the EMS and raise staff awareness of environmental issues. Provide training to improve competence levels, particularly for those whose activities impact on the environment. Try our training presentation: An introduction to EMS.

Other resource requirements, eg financial, technological, human or material, will depend on your organisation’s activities and processes and the aims set out in the environmental policy. Implementing the EMS may identify issues that require additional resources to reduce impacts or may identify technical solutions that save money over time.

11. Document information

It is important to create and maintain documented information to record and monitor progress and to demonstrate improvements in environmental performance. Put in place systems to control the organisation’s documents. This Control of documentation template can help.

12. Control operations

  • Establishing operational control ensures that EMS activities or projects function properly and that significant aspects and associated impacts are managed. How to manage operational control.

  • Depending on the nature of your organisation’s activities and processes, you will need to prepare plans for emergency situations that can cause significant environmental impacts. This will involve periodically testing and reviewing planned response actions and providing relevant training where required, with documentation.

13. Evaluate performance

Monitoring, measuring, analysis and evaluation provides information on the environmental aspects and impacts relating to your organisation’s activities and processes. Some of these processes may be subject to legally binding permits and consents, which specify limits for allowable emissions and discharges.

Make sure you use verified monitoring and measuring equipment and analyse the results as part of EMS implementation.

Results from monitoring and measuring should be documented: use this General Monitoring Record as a template.

Environmental Performance Evaluation (EPE) is an internal management tool that provides managers with ongoing information about how well your organisation’s environmental system is performing. It can help your organisation measure, evaluate and communicate environmental performance and identify areas for improvement.

Internal auditing helps determine whether environmental performance is improving as intended and whether the EMS meets the certifiable requirements of ISO 14001. Your organisation will need to establish and implement an internal audit programme, including the frequency, methods, responsibilities, planning requirements and report on findings. How to summarise an audit plan with key stages.

14. Focus on improvement

Improving environmental performance is a requirement of ISO 14001 certification.

If your internal audit reveals that environmental objectives are not being met or there is an instance of non-compliance with regulations, or if there are inconsistencies with the management system itself, then corrective actions must be taken. See Requirements of ISO 14001 for checking and review. Those actions must also be reviewed to assess whether the problem has been addressed, including documenting the results.

A regular management review is an opportunity to review your EMS progress and any operational changes that may be required following the checking, monitoring, auditing and corrective action process to ensure continual improvement of the EMS and environmental performance.

15. Environmental reporting

Publishing an environmental report is not a requirement of ISO 14001 certification but it helps demonstrate corporate responsibility and transparency.

For some industrial processes, environmental reporting is mandatory. Examples include activities or processes subject to the integrated pollution prevention and control regime and local authority pollution prevention and control (LAPPC).

There is more information, including How to complete an environmental report, in Croner’s Environmental Reporting topic.

16. Finally, self-declaration or certification?

Your organisation can self-declare that it has fulfilled the specific requirements of its EMS and is accountable for its attestation. It can also seek conformation of its self-declaration by customers and other third parties. ISO/IEC 17050-1 is a useful ISO document often used by suppliers for undertaking self-declaration.

Certification is an independent third-party assessment process, carried out by independent organisations accredited through the UK national accreditation body, UKAS. EMS certification is widely used by all types of organisations. Using accredited professional certifiers assures your stakeholders and investors that your EMS is fit for purpose and conforms to the requirements of ISO 14001. See the EMS Accreditation, Certification and Verification topic.

Last reviewed 13 December 2022