Is ISO14001, Just Another Form of Greenwashing?
Noticed ISO14001 on some of your Eco-Friendly product packaging and labels and wondered if it's simply another form of green washing designed to trick you?
Here's what you need to know.
There are a lot of fake certifications and labels out there that companies use when greenwashing, but this is certainly a real standard, and I do get a little excited when I see brands using it.
I'm going to give you the low down on what it is, and what it means when choosing a brand or product.
If you’re a label reader, you might have noticed an increasing number of companies and their products say that they have implemented or conform to ISO14001.
But do you know what this means?
What is ISO14001?
To put simply, ISO14001 is an international standard for Environmental Management Systems and can be used regardless of industry and location.
The standard requires environmental aspects relevant to a company's operations be identified and considered. It is tailorable and provides guidelines along with some compulsory actions.
To become certified, a company must follow the standard and have an up to date environmental policy. (One of the required elements is understanding environmental laws and regulations that relate to the product, industry and location).
An external certification body undertakes detailed audits each year to confirm the company is doing the right thing. It is also completely voluntary and is not a legal requirement to follow ISO14001.
What is an Environmental Management System?
An Environmental Management System is effectively the set of formal policies, processes, manuals and instructions within an organisation. (basically written task instructions or employee manuals).
Management systems are done differently by each company, but the idea behind it is to incorporate environmental considerations in to day to day operations and activities and should be included in employee training.
The environmental policy is the top item in the system (like the star on a Christmas tree), and is where an organisation promises to follow the standard, relevant legislation, and to continuously improve on environmental areas.
Another key requirement is that organisations must identify (and follow) all environmental legislation appropriate to their locations of operations and their actual activities. This must be kept up to date and periodically audited by a trained employee or consultant.
Work carried out by the company must also be audited against the legislation and internal processes to make sure the company is really doing what they say they do, including employees. (Auditing is just a more formal way of doing a check or inspection). If a problem is found, the company should take action to fix it.
Does it Mean Companies are Environmentally Friendly?
Yes and no, it really depends on so many things!
Having the ISO 14001 standard means things like energy and water usage, recycling and emissions are measured and monitored, with plans in place to improve the numbers. So the company is trying to better their own performance, but only in comparison to their own past performance.
The standard does not say an organisation must use eco-friendly packaging for example, but this may be something the company adopts to minimise their waste and usage of packaging materials.
Why Have ISO14001 At All?
In some industries, the standard is necessary for doing business and meeting contractual obligations.
Many organisations choose to adopt the standard to reduce their carbon footprint, ensure legal compliance, and to enhance their reputation.
It does cost money and time though, and for small businesses this can be too costly for the benefits gained.
Having said that, it can also create some huge savings for organisations. Think of the goal mentioned above to minimise packaging – this can be a big expense area for certain industries and has add on effects for transport and handling costs.
If all packaging materials received were recycled, and re-used to pack their own goods, this would save on costs plus reduce costs associated with recycling materials. (Most companies must pay to have recycling skips and this could mean it only needed emptying every 3 months instead of monthly).
ISO14001 is complimentary to other standards, such as Quality Management and can be a fabulous fit to an organisation that is committed to ongoing business improvement. No company is perfect, and activities change over time so this standard can help companies to adapt and manage the environmental side effectively.
What About Brands That Don’t Have It?
Not having the standard does not mean the organisation doesn’t operate in an environmentally friendly way. Many companies will use the standard and have a compliant system, but do not formally have it certified due to costs or other reasons.
Alternatively, they could just be focussed on profits and not really care about it all. Or, Maybe they haven’t even heard of it, yet they are still being incredibly environmentally friendly. Many small home run businesses are the most eco-friendly of all!
Should You Only Choose Certified Brands To Be Sure They Do The Right Thing?
Definitely NOT, and this is where is can get super confusing.
Certified organisations can still be doing the wrong thing and there are many examples where some have been found to be doing really terrible things. This is not the majority, but it does happen.
For example, Companies can lie and hide some of their activities, such as dumping toxic waste, and it can be difficult for the certification bodies to find non-compliances.
If companies are found to be doing the wrong thing, they may get a warning that allows them to fix the issues, or if it is serious they can lose their certification on the spot. And, as mentioned above, many companies do the right thing without it. You can check if they still hold their certification (or maybe never had it) by heading to directories such as JAS-ANZ.
For large companies that are closely linked to environmental issues, I am always sceptical as to why they aren't certified as they can certainly afford to do it. We all know, what companies say they do....and what they actually do can be very different…and how many times have we heard CEOs say they had no idea their company was doing horrible things? The standard can help companies to do the right thing across the entire business, and there's no excuse for not knowing what is happening in a company you run.
The Best advice I can give you as a consumer, is do a google search and include a news search to check up on the company reputation and make your own mind up.
So, in a nut shell, No ISO14001 isn't green washing, BUT it also doesn't guarantee they are doing the right thing. And, all those smaller businesses that don't have ISO14001 could be doing an absolutely brilliant job but don't have the label on their product.
The great thing is, this standard is NOT just a tick label that can be bought by a company, it is a real thing (unlike some labels).
Companies do actually have to commit time and money to developing and implementing things within the organisation AND are prepared to have external auditors check up on them.
I really hope this guide helps simplify what this standard is all about and empowers you to make purchasing decisions armed with more solid information and facts.
Have you seen ISO14001 on a product recently?
I spent most of my career as an auditor, writing policies, procedures, legal registers and improvement plans - so I do get pretty excited when I see it on a product label. I usually head to their website, read their environmental policy and take a look around to see if they really are genuinely committed to it.