ISO 14000: Sustainable business design using environmental management systems (EMS)

ISO 14000 gives the framework, requirements, and standards for the implementation of an effective company-wide environmental management system (EMS). ISO 14000 is in high demand as corporate CEOs, business leaders, and green teams recognize the seriousness of sustainability for business viability, but struggle to take action.

According to Stanford Social Innovation Review, 90% of CEOs know sustainability is vital for their company’s success in today’s changing business landscape. Supporting these findings, a Harvard Business Review reports 99% of large company CEOs want to address sustainability issues as a must for the future success of their organization. Like SSIR and HBR, the Green Business Bureau sees the leaders that seek a sustainable business world.

Yet, despite this preference for responsible business design, only 60% of CEOs have a sustainability strategy in place and report feeling powerless to drive a sustainable cause. By providing guidance and an actionable roadmap, third-party green business certification is the solution to these woes.


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Regain your power, and use this article alongside the ISO 14000 family of standards to approach sustainability with an actionable manual to get things done. In this article, we’ll run through the key frameworks, concepts, and terminology for understanding and implementing ISO 14000, before giving you access to our implementation checklist. We then detail the limitations of these standards, and how they’re overcome by supplementing ISO 14000 with other green business certification directives, like the Green Business Bureau.

Click on the links below to navigate through this article:

What is ISO 14000?

ISO 14000 references a family of standards structured to help organizations design, implement, and optimize an environmental management system (EMS), to reduce harm to nature from business operations. The ISO 14000 standards address a need to standardize EMSs on a global scale, meaning comparisons between organizations can be made.

What is ISO?

Based in Geneva, Switzerland, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is a governing body that’s created international standards for a wide range of industrial and commercial applications. Today, there are over 22,600 different types of ISO standards, spanning many industries. To name a few, the most common standards are:

  • ISO 9001:2015 – Used for general organizational Quality Management Systems (QMS). It’s recommended these standards are used in conjunction with ISO 14000.
  • ISO 14001:2015 – A set of standards under the ISO 14000 series. ISO 14001 provides step-by-step guidance on how to institute an effective EMS.
  • ISO 45001:2015 – An international standard for health and safety in the workplace.

Out of these 22,600 standards, 350 are related to environmental management systems (but not all EMS-related standards are under the ISO 14000 series).

ISO 14000 Standards (2)

The implementation of any ISO standard is voluntary. Yet most businesses recognize the benefits of following the rules and guidance given, which is why ISO has global recognition and esteem.

What is ISO 14000?

ISO standards are identified using multiples of 1000 (the family), and any number after refers to the specific standard (e.g. 45001, 9001, 14001). (:date indicates the date the standards were released.)

14000 is a family of standards designed to help an organization set up, maintain, and optimize an EMS. The most popular standard in this family is ISO 14001:2015 Environmental Management Systems. For more information about ISO 14001, read: ISO 14001 Certification Guide to Set up a Comprehensive Environmental Management System.

Other standards under ISO 14000 build on ISO 14001:2015. Below we’ve listed the core standards in the ISO 14000 family:

Understanding the fundamental frameworks, concepts, and terminology used in ISO 14000

After reading the following section of this article, you’ll understand the fundamental concepts of ISO 14000.

ISO 14000 frameworks

Environmental management system (EMS)

An environmental management system aims to reduce the negative impacts a business has on the environment by integrating policy, procedures, and processes for measuring, analyzing, and reporting an organization’s impact on the natural world. Progress is continuously monitored using a cycle of continuous improvement, otherwise known as the Plan-Do-Act-Check cycle (explained later in this article).

The ISO 14000 standards use a systematic approach to environmental management. By utilizing a continuous cycle of data collection, analysis, and improvement, information is collated to build success over the long term. Any EMS created under the ISO 14000 standards contributes to sustainable development by:

  • Protecting the environment.
  • Mitigating the adverse environmental impacts caused by operations.
  • Meeting compliance obligations.
  • Adopting a life cycle perspective to prevent environmental harm from product and service design, manufacture, distribution, consumption, and disposal. With this approach, environmental impacts aren’t shifted elsewhere in the life cycle.
  • Strengthening a brand’s market position which in turn bolsters an organization’s profit line.
  • Providing third-party verification that business efforts are sincere for effective communication with key stakeholders.

Later in this article, you’re presented with a checklist that will help you implement an effective EMS under the ISO 14000 family of standards.

Plan-Do-Check-Act model

The Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle is fundamental to any EMS under ISO 14000. This cycle ensures the EMS is continuously improved upon.

The PDCA cycle is a lean business management framework established in the 1950s by Dr. William Edwards Deming. PDCA helps identify why some products or processes don’t work as hoped. Today, the PDCA cycle is a popular strategy tool applicable to many organizational settings.

Plan Do Check Act model (PDCA) (2)

The cycle is made up of four phases, as described below:

  • Plan: Clear objectives are established, and an outline of the processes involved is defined. During this stage, business operations and processes to be improved are defined, along with what you want to achieve. Required changes are suggested, and a plan of action for these changes is determined.
  • Do: The plan of action is implemented. During this stage, the causes of the undesired operational and process elements are determined.
  • Check: This is a key step in the PDCA cycle. During this stage, you’ll observe the effectiveness of the implemented actions. Opportunities for improvement are identified. It’s here that you might perform an internal audit on the systems involved.
  • Act: Based on what was observed in the previous step, corrective action is taken to improve and optimize EMS performance.

Continuous improvement

The PDCA model employs the concept of continuous improvement. Continuous improvement describes the ongoing advancement of products and services through incremental and breakthrough changes over time.

When adopting a continuous improvement approach, current performance is analyzed, areas for improvement are then identified, and actions are then taken to make the changes required. Once action items are implemented, performance is once again reviewed to make additional advancements.

Life cycle assessment

A life cycle assessment is a methodology used to evaluate the environmental impacts associated with all life cycle stages of a commercial product or service. This means environmental impacts from cradle (the extraction of raw materials), to gate (the moment the product or service enters the use stage), and to grave (product or service end-of-life).

The National Risk Management Research Laboratory of the EPA states the LCA assesses the environmental impacts associated with a product, process, or service, by:

  1. Compiling an inventory of relevant energy and material inputs, and output waste that enters the environment;
  2. Evaluating the potential environmental impacts associated with identified inputs and releases;
  3. Interpreting the results to help you make more informed decisions.

LCA is covered under ISO 14040 and 14044. According to these standards, there are four phases to an LCA.

  • Phase one – Goal and scope definition: Define the goal to be achieved under the stated limitations (scope).
  • Phase two – Inventory analysis: Create an inventory of flows from and to nature for a product system. E.g. raw material and energy use, atmospheric emissions, water emissions, and waste. It’s recommended to start with a flow model – this is a flow diagram that includes the activities that are going to be assessed in the supply chain and gives a clear picture of the technical system boundaries.
  • Phase three – Impact assessment: Identify the environmental and human health effects from the elementary flows determined during the inventory analysis.
  • Phase four – Interpretation: A systematic technique is applied to identify, quantify, check, and evaluate information from the results of the life cycle inventory and impact assessment. From this analysis, a set of conclusions and recommendations for the study are drawn.

Life cycle assessments are complex, and therefore delving into the specific details of how to perform one goes beyond the scope of this article. Refer to the standards ISO 14040:2006 Environmental management – Life Cycle Assessment – Principles and Framework and 14044:2006 Environmental Management Life Cycle Assessment Requirements and Guidelines for more information.

Material flow analysis (MFA)

Material flow analysis is a systematic assessment of the flows and stock of materials within a system that’s both defined in space and time. System boundaries are drawn such that materials and stocks that enter the system, stay in the system and move into system processes.

By materials, we’re referring to raw materials such as wood, metals, or chemical compounds. The core element of MFA is that inputs must be balanced by system outputs, and any discrepancies are then explained by losses or stockpiles. Hence MFA is often applied to identify process waste and system inefficiencies. Typically material flows are analyzed for years, meaning long-term patterns can be studied.

Environmental Input/Output (EIOT) analysis

An Environmental Input-Output (EIOT) analysis approach serves to expand environmental impact reduction targets and strategies to include the entire supply chain or whole product life cycle. The model was first construed in 1936 by the U.S. economist Leontif. Leontif constructed a linear model of the U.S. economy that related the production inputs of goods and services of one industry, to the production of outputs from other industries via an I/O table.

In summary, the I/O table accounts for all material flows between sectors in the economy. The principles of I/O tables can specifically be used for environmental assessments, with the use case extending to include undesirable outputs that impact the environment, such as emission data. In these cases, the analysis is referred to as an environmental input-output assessment.

Leontief stated:

The total amount of that particular types of pollution generated by the economic system as a whole, equal the sum total of the amounts produced by all its separate sectors” – Lenotief 1970, Environmental Repercussions and the Economic Structure: An Input-Output Approach

With this in mind, environmental input/output analysis can quantify and analyze the environmental impacts of economic activities. It involves identifying the environmental inputs (e.g. raw materials, energy) and outputs (e.g. emissions, waste) associated with the production and consumption of goods and services. This idea can be applied to a business scope too, as in the example below.

Inputs/Outputs Air pollution (kg) Water pollution (kg) Waste (kg) Energy use (kWh)


1 10 20
Steel 10 2 3 25
Plastic 15 3 7 25
Gasoline for delivery 25 5 2 120
Total inputs 105 21 35 380
Furniture products 200 40 20
Total outputs 200 40 20

In this table, the rows represent different inputs and outputs associated with a hypothetical furniture business.

The table shows the environmental impact of producing one unit of furniture product. The business emits 5kg of air pollution, 1kg of water pollution, and 10kg of waste. The business also uses 20kWh of energy to power its operations and another 120kWh of energy to distribute products.

The matrix can be used to identify which inputs or processes have the largest environmental impact and where improvements can be made to reduce that impact.

ISO 14000 concepts

Environmental aspects

An environmental aspect is an element of an organization’s activities, products, or services that can interact with the environment to give either positive or negative effects.

Drawing maps and flow diagrams of all relevant activities and material flows can help identify potential environmental aspects. Initial surveys of environmental aspects are often qualitative and provide opportunities to prioritize areas in need of attention.

Environmental impact analysis

Environmental impact analysis details the severity of the environmental aspects drawn, with an understanding that the impacts can be local or global, positive or negative. To explain further, let’s run through an example.

Consider the distribution of goods along a value chain using diesel-powered lorries. The burning of fossil fuels to power vehicles releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and sulfur dioxide. The burning of fossil fuels by company-owned vehicles is an environmental aspect. The environmental impact of this can be defined both locally and globally:

  1. Local impacts: Sulphur dioxide emissions contribute to acid rain, which affects the local real.
  2. Global impacts: Carbon dioxide contributes to human-induced climate change, and the effects are global.

ISO 14000 terminology

Success factors

Success factors refer to the internal and external components that can influence the success of an EMS. This is dependent particularly on the commitment from all levels and functions of the organization. Top management must address risks and opportunities, while also integrating effective environmental management into the organization’s business processes, strategic direction, and decision-making, and aligning the needs of the environmental system with other business priorities.

It must be noted that the adoption of an international standard does not guarantee positive environmental outcomes. The level of detail and complexity of an EMS will vary depending on the context of the organization, the scope of its environmental management system, compliance obligations, and the nature of its activities, products, and services.

Management system

A set of business processes and policies designed to achieve a given objective, and all the interrelated and interacting elements involved. A management system will have a defined structure, with allocated roles and responsibilities, and a means of evaluating performance and improvement.

An environmental management system, as referred to in ISO 14001, refers to a management system used to manage environmental aspects, fulfill environmental compliance obligations, and address environmental risks while seeking opportunities to improve an organization’s environmental performance.

Environmental policy

An environmental policy is a written statement that outlines the aims of an organization to reduce negative operational impacts on the environment. Having a defined environmental policy is essential for successfully implementing ISO 14001 standards.

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Results to be achieved. An environmental objective must be consistent with the environmental policy.

Environmental targets

An environmental target is a detailed performance requirement. Targets are set to deliver on the given environmental objectives. For instance, let’s say the environmental objective is to reach carbon neutrality by 2030. Targets under this objective are:

  • To reduce the employee commute by allowing 75% of the workforce to work from home under a hybrid working model;
  • To reduce business-related air travel by 50%;
  • To upgrade company petrol vehicles to electric vehicles;
  • To install new and improved building insulation for every business site;
  • To install smart thermostats for every business site;
  • To offset the remaining business emissions.

As you can see, a single business objective can have multiple associated business targets.


A systematic, independent, and documented process to objectively infer the extent to which specified standards have been met. An audit can be conducted internally by the organization in question, or by an external third party.

Conformity and non-conformity

Conformity describes the degree to which a requirement is fulfilled. Non-conformity describes the degree to which a requirement is not fulfilled. There are two types of conformity, minor and major:

  1. Minor non-conformity: The problem rarely happens, is easy to detect, and/or doesn’t cause significant failure.
  2. Major non-conformity: The problem frequently happens, is difficult to detect, and/or causes significant failure

Corrective action

Action is taken to address a non-conformity and to prevent re-occurrence.

ISO 14000 checklist: Implementing an effective EMS under the ISO 14000 family of standards

Our ISO 14000 checklist is structured as detailed below. Click on the link to navigate through this checklist.

The PLAN phase of an EMS under ISO 14000

The first phase to establish an EMS under ISO 14000 is the PLAN phase, of which there are eight steps.

ISO 14000 checklist (PDCA)

Step #1 – Define the context of the organization:

  • Define the needs and expectations of interested particles.
  • Define the scope of the environmental management system. Note that an EMS must identify every environmental impact caused by the business – good and bad – meaning the scope of an EMS must extend across the entire organization.

Step #2 – Identify leadership roles:

  • Assign organizational roles, responsibilities, and authorities.
  • Outline the environmental policy.

Step #3 – Identify stakeholders and their requirements:

Stakeholders are individuals or groups who may gain or experience losses or harm as a result of company operations. This can include employees, customers, governments, nongovernmental organizations, or shareholders.

  • Engage stakeholders by holding focus group meetings, online discussions, meetings in local communities (e.g. town halls), engaging in stakeholder and expert panel discussions or an external review panel, and getting involved in relevant partnerships.

Step #4: Plan your EMS:

  • Identify environmental aspects. Draw maps and flow diagrams of all relevant activities and material flows to identify and list potential environmental aspects.
  • Define action steps to address risks and opportunities.
  • Develop a process for identifying compliance requirements.
  • Document the environmental objectives of your EMS and define targets to achieve them.
  • Document environmental aspects. This should include descriptions and flowcharts or existing processes, and production data (e.g. raw material consumption, production volume, secondary products and waste, noise, and transportation).
  • Set appropriate limits to identify environmental aspects. E.g. is the focus on internal processes only, or should aspects include the upstream and downstream value chain impacts?
  • Evaluate the environmental impacts. Analyze the severity of identified environmental aspects, which is done by defining the cause and scope.
    • Define the environmental impact scope. Impacts can be local, regional, or global.
    • Identify the cause of environmental impacts. Utilize an environmental input-output (EIOT) analysis approach, material flow analysis (MFL), and Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) information.

Step #5 – Create a system to support your EMS:

  • Gather resources. What resources does your EMS need? For example, software for tracking developments and changes, and AI to collate business data in real time.
  • Promote awareness and communicate. Ensure employees understand why establishing an EMS is important, and what they can do to support developments. Create awareness of the problems and solutions, and communicate organizational changes to be made.
  • Document everything. You need to ensure the environmental performance of your organization is assessed, keeping data and supportive documentation at hand. Developments and sustainable changes need to be recorded to keep an audit trail. Ensure you have an effective document management system for secure storage and easy access.
  • Ensure competence. Confirm you and your team understand what’s required and how to fulfill their role. Hold training sessions, meetings, and easy access to relevant resources to aid understanding.

Step #6: Propose environmental improvements:
Examples of proposed environmental improvements include:

  • Product and process changes;
  • Changes to raw materials and auxiliaries;
  • Changes in technology and practices;
  • Implementing measures for waste reduction;
  • Instituting a reuse and recycling scheme;
  • Energy conservation techniques e.g. insulation installation, implementing a controllable thermostat, and switching to LED lights;
  • Land restoration and biodiversity precautionary actions.

Step #7 – Make a priority list of improvement actions:

Select measures for improvement, and create an action plan which should specify the below:

  • A schedule for the implementation of measures;
  • Assignments of responsibility;
  • An employee training plan, including the introduction of new equipment, and new operating instructions.
  • A system to document the effectiveness of chosen measures.

Step #8 – Set environmental objectives and targets:

  • Define and document your environmental objectives, and the associated environmental targets. Remember, a single objective can have multiple targets that span across departments. Make sure organizational departments understand what’s required of them.

The DO phase of an EMS under ISO 14000

The DO phase, otherwise referred to as the implementation phase, involves the execution of your plan, of which there are five steps.
ISO 14000 checklist DO phase

  • Step #1 – Implement your plan: Focus on the implementation of priority measures to improve environmental performance.
  • Step #2 – Set up procedures: You need to set up procedures to implement, monitor, control, and document progress.
  • Step #3 – Create an emergency response system: Identify risk factors and make sure you have a clear mitigation system in place. Plan and implement a process to determine preventive action to minimize the risk of an accident that will result in a negative environmental impact.
  • Step #4 – Document everything: Ensure you have clearly defined, documented, and communicated your implementation procedures for purposes of training and compliance contingency.
  • Step #5 – Set a clear environmental statement: An environmental statement will form the foundations of determining new objectives and related action plans for environmental programs.

The CHECK phase of an EMS under ISO 14000

After implementing the most basic elements of an EMS, you need to be able to observe how it functions and make the corrections and optimization adjustments needed. There are five steps in this CHECK stage.
ISO 14000 checklist CHECK phase

  • Step #1 – Monitor, measure, analyze, and evaluate: This step is pretty self-explanatory. You need to understand how your business is performing after the EMS has been implemented. Results from this analysis need to be compared to data before EMS implementation to determine the system’s effectiveness. Collate the required quantitative and qualitative information to obtain this benchmark and to verify whether environmental performance is improved.
  • Step #2 – Check progress against environmental objectives: Ensure your EMS and associated actions and projects sit within compliance rules and regulations, and your company policies. Your EMS initiatives must meet the environmental objectives set.
  • Step #3 – Conduct an internal audit: You can assess your EMS based on ISO 14000 requirements internally to identify areas where you’re not hitting your targets. The purpose of the internal audit is to uncover weaknesses and discrepancies and to examine whether the adopted systems and procedures work as intended. Obtain audit evidence and judge your system objectively, and decipher the extent to which the audit criteria are fulfilled.
  • Step #4 – Create an audit report: Create a list of follow-up measures drawn from the results of the internal audit. The purpose of this report is to complete a dialogue on any potential challenges your company might face as you focus on sustainability. Your aim is to turn these challenges into opportunities.
  • Step #5 – Management review: This could tie in with the previous step, but it’s important to have a distinguished review of the EMS conducted by management, to make sure that everything is functioning as targeted. The audit report is the underlying document of this management review.

The ACT phase of an EMS under ISO 14000

As mentioned, every EMS system under ISO 14000 utilizes the principles of continuous improvement so organizations can optimize all aspects of the system. There are three main target areas for continuous improvement, which are actioned during the ACT phase of the PDCA cycle. There are five steps in this phase.
ISO 14000 checklist ACT phase

  • Step #1 – Consider the scope of your EMS for expansion: Does the scope of the EMS need to be expanded to include more of the organization? What departments are currently included?
  • Step #2 – Improve business processes and functions that do not conform: Look for non-conformity, take action to eliminate the cause, and implement corrective actions.
  • Step #3 – Evaluate your current environmental policy: A top task for management. Determine whether the current environmental policy should be revised.
  • Step #4 – Further optimize your EMS: Think about the structure and the organization of your current EMS, and how effectively your EMS deals with environmental issues. How can your EMS be made more efficient and effective?
  • Step #5 – Make sure your EMS is addressing the entire value chain: In reaction to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially SDG 12 on responsible consumption and production, it’s vital your EMS considers business impacts across the entire value chain, thinking about the upstream and downstream sustainability of a product or service.

The ISO 14000 certification process

As you cycle between the PDCA cycle of continuous improvement, when you feel your business is ready, you must seek ISO 14000 certification from a third-party vendor. Below we detail the steps involved in this process:

  • Step #1 – Conduct an initial assessment: You’re advised to carry out an internal audit before requesting an external audit assessment. The internal audit assessment will help your business decipher where you’re currently at. An initial assessment request can then be made, whereby an independent certification auditor will evaluate your organization’s existing environmental management system, identify areas for improvement, and increase a business’s readiness to obtain ISO 14000 certification.
  • Step #2 – Document operations: Businesses need to have a well-documented audit trail. This means environmental policies, objectives, targets, and identified environmental impacts and aspects must be transparently reported. Every improvement initiative must be documented, along with KPIs and benchmark data to track results.
  • Step #3 – Obtain third-party certification verification: Certification auditors will visit your business onsite to ensure what’s been reported matches reality. Certification auditors are from a third-party agency not related to ISO but will specialize in ISO 14000 certification procedures. These auditors will interview employees as part of the certification process.
  • Step #4 – Non-conformity resolution: The certification process could identify non-conformities. Minor non-conformities must be addressed within 60 days of the audit date.
  • Step #5 – Attaining and retaining certification: After applying the corrective actions with proper documentation and/or the certifying body has ascertained the organization meets ISO 14000 standards, the business can obtain certification. Certification is valid for 3 years, although the certified site will undergo bi-annual and annual external audits as affirmation that the certification still applies.

Key takeaways for achieving ISO 14000 certification

Pulling the above information from our ISO 14000 checklist together, below we’ve summarized 5 key takeaways on how an organization can obtain ISO 14000 certification:

  • Prepare and plan well: Money, time, and effort need to be optimized with a clearly defined ISO 14000 plan, and the right resources must be prepared.
  • Review the ISO 14000 standards: Our ISO 14000 checklist gives a good actionable review of ISO 14000 requirements. Be sure to follow this checklist, while also downloading and reading through the ISO 14000 certification standards.
  • Communicate and train your team: You need to make sure your team is on board with the changes your business makes to adhere to ISO 14000. Make sure your employees understand what goals your business is trying to achieve and what processes are involved to improve your organization’s EMS. Develop employee training programs to help your team understand the ISO 14000 framework, why it’s important, what actions and changes are to be made, and how to deal with non-conformances.
  • Perform an internal audit: Internal audits are a great way to establish whether your organization is meeting the requirements laid out in the ISO 14000 family of standards. Any non-conformities can be identified before third-party certification is requested.
  • Get certified: Work with the independent ISO auditors to ensure your EMS systems are up to scratch. Choose a notable third-party certification body.

The business benefits of ISO 14000

Why should your business obtain ISO 14000 certification? We discuss the key business benefits of following ISO 14000 standards.

ISO 14000 certification offers an effective risk-reduction strategy

ISO 14000 standards give a proactive approach to environmental management. This is an effective risk mitigation strategy as opposed to the alternative – the organization responds to a negative environmental effect as it happens, termed a reactive approach.

For instance, by abiding by ISO 14000 requirements, a business minimizes exposure to regulatory and environmental liability fines. That is, ISO 14000 standards meet and exceed government-set environmental legislation and requirements. A business completely avoids compliance breaches and the negative consequences that follow.

ISO 14000 leverages financial incentives

Federal, state, and local US governments offer tax incentives for companies that choose to adopt and implement environmentally responsible standard operating procedures. These incentives include Emission Reduction credits (ERCs); Capped Allowance Systems; taxes on business emissions, and subsidies for pollution control.

ISO 14000 helps attract and retain top talent

~40% of millennials have taken a job because of a company’s sustainability credentials and would take a pay cut to work for an environmentally responsible business. ISO 14000 certification showcases this commitment to attracting and retaining a solid talent base. On top of this, 89% of executives state that operating toward a higher purpose delivers superior employee satisfaction.

ISO 14000 improves business brand image and public relations

According to a report by cone communications:

  • 76% of Americans expect companies to take action against climate change;
  • 73% of companies would stop purchasing from a company that shows disinterest in taking positive steps that tackle our climate crisis.

On top of this, 66% of consumers overall would spend more for a product if it had improved sustainability credentials.

People are demanding better. There’s a shift from a demand for good products to a demand for good companies, with 83% of consumers paying as much attention to the company as they do the product.

Hence, people view sustainability as a plus. That is, companies that demonstrate noble green and social values establish a popular and positive brand reputation. ISO 14000 certification gives third-party validation that a business’s sustainability claims and commitment are accurate, transparent, and trustworthy (avoiding corporate greenwash).

ISO 14000 gives organizations a competitive edge

A 2011 MIT Management (Sloan School) survey questioned ~3,000 executives and found that two-thirds believed sustainability is necessary to viably compete in today’s market. With this in mind, a 2021 Morningstar U.S. Sustainability Leaders Index report found that companies with better sustainability performance returned a 33.3% higher return over one year, beating the broader US market by more than 8%.

ISO 14000 limitations

One of the main advantages of using the ISO 14000 family of standards is their adaptability to any sector of the economy and enterprise size. The standards were set up in an attempt to deliver a globally-recognized and universal language for environmental management. However, concerns have been raised around the ability of ISO 14000 to meet this aim, due to specific limitations.

The benefits and limitations of the ISO 14000 family of standards are addressed in the table below, as adapted from Family ISO 14000 Standards as a Tool of Achieving Environmental Sustainability of Enterprises (Anzhelika Karaeva 2023).

Group of ISO 14000 standard aim Benefits Limitations
Setting up and maintaining an Environmental Management System

  • An EMS is set up based on the PDCA model, which adopts the idea of continuous improvement.
  • Every level of an organization is covered.
  • The approach is suitable for every business regardless of their size.

  • Certification costs are high. Although the price depends on various factors, an expert consultancy for ISO 14001 will charge between $4,000 – $6,000. An integrated management system (IMS) can also be purchased to gain certification across multiple ISO standards, but this can cost ~$10,000.
  • ISO 14000 fails to account for the characteristics of different industries and economic sectors.
  • The certification process takes a significant amount of time. Completing the entire ISO 14000 certification process can take anywhere from 3 months to 2 years.
Environmental auditing and related environmental investigations

  • Standards are universal.
  • Clear instructions are given on how to prepare an environmental report, contributing to the worldwide standardization of the entire procedure.
  • Standards can be applied for internal and external audits.

  • High cost of certification.
  • ISO 14000 fails to account for the characteristics of different industries and economic sectors.
  • The certification process takes a significant amount of time.
Environmental auditing and related environmental investigations

  • Requirements a highly elaborated for a thorough understanding and design of environmental labeling and declaration.
  • High cost of certification.
  • The certification process takes a significant amount of time.
Environmental performance

  • Each set of standards within the ISO 14000 family can be used independently.
  • Standards within the ISO 14000 family cover a wide range of enterprise activities.
  • Standards are universal.
  • Standards meet the current requirements of the global agenda in the field of environmental protection and climate conservation.
  • High cost of certification.
  • Most standards are not adapted for small and medium-sized enterprises.
  • Industry specifics are not taken into full account.
  • A lack of consideration is taken toward resource efficiency.
  • The certification process takes a significant amount of time.
Life cycle assessment (OCA)

  • All aspects of conducting an LCA are covered.
  • Standards are universal.
  • Standards can be used as supplementary assets to state recommendations for evaluation.
  • A significant role in the assessment is given to the environmental component.
  • Lacks a unified methodology with a list of indicators for conducting an LCA.
  • High cost of certification.
  • Mose standards are not adapted to small and medium-sized enterprises.
  • The certification process takes a significant amount of time.
GHG and climate change management and related activities

  • The standards give in-depth elaboration of all aspects of accounting, monitoring, and assessment of an organization’s GHG emissions.
  • Requirements are readily available for organizations involved in the verification and validation of environmental reporting.
  • Approaches and methodologies are recommended for the implementation of climate projects, and the assessment of climate risks.
  • High cost of certification.
  • Mose standards are not adapted to small and medium-sized enterprises.
  • The certification process takes a significant amount of time.

Overcoming the limitations of ISO 14000 with Green Business Bureau certification

The Green Business Bureau certification program addresses the limitations of the ISO 14000 family of standards, to make it easier for organizations to implement green operations without expensive, long, and arduous audit processes.

GBB has taken the complexity out of business sustainability with the mind that impactful changes can be made based on common sense, e.g. recycling waste, switching to LED light bulbs, and implementing a controllable thermostat onsight. GBB initiatives range from these easy wins to initiatives that require more investment and effort. Yet, a business is supported to take action from day one by focusing on the low-hanging fruit as they work toward larger green goals. Momentum remains high as sustainable action is prioritized over endless reports and costly consultations.

I’ll be 100% transparent, I’m the president of the Green Business Bureau, a company obsessed with taking the cost and complexity out of sustainability. We believe every business should have an economic path to become more sustainable and environmentally friendly. We need to work together to create a green and socially responsible business world.

Our mission is simple: Disrupt the traditional Sustainability and ESG industry. Companies have spent billions on ESG consulting, vendors, data collection, ratings, and reports. Shouldn’t we be spending that money and time on actions and change?” – Bill Zujewski, President of the Green Business Bureau, Sustainability: It’s About the Actions, Not Just the Carbon and ESG Data

Referring to the above, the main limitations of ISO 14000 are:

  • Limitation #1: High costs;
  • Limitation #2: A large investment of time;
  • Limitation #3: A failure to take into account the characteristics of different industries;
  • Limitation #4: Standards are poorly adapted for small to medium-sized industries.

To summarize, we’ve detailed how the Green Business Bureau overcomes these limitations below:

  • Overcoming limitation #1 of ISO 14000 – GBB is an affordable green business certification provider: The Green Business Bureau offers a low-cost means of obtaining green business certification by removing unnecessary high-cost processes – such as expensive consultants and reporting. Businesses can track progress in the Cloud using GBB’s EcoAssessment to internally benchmark their current performance using a scorecard-based approach. Goals are set using GBB’s EcoPlanner. Initiatives are simplified to: Have you done it: Yes or no? Our team of expert analysts will then work with you, to make sure you’re reporting your sustainability journey accurately.
  • Overcoming limitation #2 of ISO 14000 – Completing the GBB assessment is a relatively quick process: The scorecard approach simplifies business sustainability into a set of actionable initiatives. Information on how to obtain each initiative is given in a way that avoids confusing jargon. Simply follow GBB’s EcoAssessment and EcoPlanner as a process, obtaining recognition for actions currently in place straight away. Filter initiatives to implement low-cost and low-effort ones first. This way, your business can make notable progress from day one.
  • Overcoming limitation #3 of ISO 14000 – GBB has industry-specific green initiative packs: The GBB platform houses sustainability initiatives that are applicable across every industry, while also giving industry-specific initiative packs. This way, GBB certification meets the unique needs of different industries.
  • Overcoming limitation #4 of ISO 14000 – GBB has plans tailored for small-medium-enterprise-sized organizations: At GBB, we want every organization – regardless of size and resource availability – to be able to attain green business certification. For this reason, GBB has three sets of plans – our small business plan, medium business plan, and enterprise business plan. Each plan is tailored to meet the unique needs of each business size.

Hence, GBB certification effectively mitigates the drawbacks of ISO 14000 certification, yet we recommend you use GBB alongside ISO 14000 if you have the resources available to do so. This is because the two systems complement each, as we explain.

The aim of ISO 14000 differs from that of GBB. ISO 14000 family of standards focus on how business systems are managed through the setup and maintenance of an EMS. Whereas GBB focuses on implementing specific initiatives which will support the targets and objectives outlined within your EMS. Plus, GBB takes a holistic approach to sustainability and accounts for an organization’s social performance alongside environmental performance. Hence, GBB should be used supplementary to ISO 14000.

ISO 14000 supports GBB certification, and GBB certification supports ISO 14000 certification.

And for organizations that haven’t the financial or time resources available, GBB acts as a stepping stone in helping businesses make meaningful sustainable changes today to create a solid foundation for ISO certification in the future.

For more information on how GBB certification can prepare you for ISO 14000, read: ISO 14001: How Green Business Bureau Certification Prepares a Company for ISO 14001 Certification.

How do I get certified with the Green Business Bureau?

Before you sign up for the Green Business Bureau, you can request a free demo, and our member success team will walk you through the GBB platform, answer any questions you might have, and show you how GBB certification works.

How Our Certification Works

This guides explains how our online certification program works. Use the guide to understand if your business is ready and how to earn the verified certified green business seal.

When you’re ready, you can sign up and begin your EcoAssessment. Our EcoAssessment uses a scorecard approach to benchmark your organization’s current sustainability performance. From this assessment, you can identify areas for improvement, and using GBB’s EcoPlanner, set targets for improved sustainability performance.

Every initiative you complete, and your target sustainability goals are recorded in the Cloud on the GBB platform, meaning you have an audit trail of your sustainability journey. Once you’ve completed the prerequisites, you’ll receive your very own EcoProfile and clickable Green Seal of Approval. This seal comes as a physical copy, but also in a digital format to display on your website. On clicking the digital Green Seal, stakeholders are taken to your EcoProfile, where they can track your sustainability progress, and view what initiatives you’ve successfully implemented. Refer to Platinum-certified Green Business Bureau member, Impetus Digital’s EcoProfile below as an example.

Impetus Digital GBB Public Profile and Marketing (1)

You’ll work with the Green Business Bureau team to verify your sustainability efforts. GBB will also help you communicate your commitment to the world via GBB’s marketing collaboration opportunities, such as member stories, social media shares, guest posting, and podcasts. You can also connect with and collaborate with other GBB members via GBB’s member directory.

So join the community of sustainable businesses working together to make a difference. Get certified and showcase your commitment to creating a brighter, sustainable business world.

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