ISO 14001 guide for smaller business

From customers looking to purchase from brands that are more environmentally friendly to some commercial contracts requiring proven green operations, environmental accreditation schemes may be a useful tool to demonstrate your environmental impact.

Accreditation schemes such as ISO 14001 can go a long way in proving to stakeholders, investors, and customers that your business is serious about its environmental impact.

Green accreditation schemes often involve third-party audits of your business, as well as evidence that your business's operations, practices, and policies are working to achieve a more sustainable future.

What is ISO 14001?

ISO 14001 is the international standard for environmental management systems – the processes, policies, and procedures within a business that govern operations and environmental impact.

This can cover systems such as waste management, recycling, energy use, and use of pollutants such as toxic chemicals.

ISO 14001 was created by the International Organization for Standardization, an independent standards body that is responsible for creating international standards for businesses relating to issues such as product quality, information security, and health and safety at work.

The ISO Survey 2020 found that there are over 348,000 ISO 14001 certificates worldwide covering over 568,000 sites.

ISO 14001 provides a framework for implementing an environmental management system that can help your company deliver operations efficiently and sustainably and can also ensure that your business has a management system in place that is modern, committed to continual improvement, and designed to transparently report on your environmental impact.

Schemes such as ISO 14001 aren't limited to large corporations, either. Companies of all sizes and across all sectors can apply for ISO 14001 certification.

ISO 14001 is one of a number of ISO standards. It is an independently operated scheme that has global recognition and is seen as an independent benchmark as to a business's commitment to the environment.

How to achieve ISO 14001 certification

ISO 14001 certification is where your environmental management system is independently assessed and certified.

There are several steps involved in achieving ISO 14001 certification:

• Auditing and gap analysis – the initial stage is for your business to assess its existing processes and operations, examining environmental management systems that are in place. This can involve interviewing managers and reviewing documents to learn how, for example, waste is processed or how possible polluting chemicals are stored. This stage can identify weak areas and gaps in your processes that you should address.

• Implementing an environmental management system – this involves implementing a system that proactively measures, controls, and monitors operations in relation to environmental impact.

• Assessing and certification – businesses are not able to self-certify their own environmental management system so an independent third party that is itself certified to assess your system against the ISO standard should be used. This will involve an audit and assessment and if successful, your business will be issued an ISO certificate that can be used in promotional materials.

• Surveillance – ISO certificates only last for three years, after which your business will need to be audited again. An annual surveillance audit should be carried out to ensure that the environmental management system is still meeting ISO standards. This annual audit can be carried out by the business.

Using third-party ISO services

Organisations such as Certification EuropeBritish Assessment Bureau, and British Standard Institution (BSI) all offer certification services, such as training through to certification.

It's important that you choose independent third parties that themselves are accredited by organisations such as UKAS to ensure the process meets ISO standards.

Third-party assessors will assign an independent auditor who will assess your environmental management system.

An initial assessment will seek to identify gaps and areas to improve before a second certification audit is conducted to award ISO certification.

Benefits of ISO 14001 for SMEs

ISO 14001 is an international standard that can bring a multitude of benefits for small and medium-sized enterprises.

According to ISO (PDF, 581 KB), benefits include:

• meet statutory and regulatory requirements – ISO 14001 can help demonstrate compliance with some environmental regulations.

• improved efficiencies – reducing waste and boosting efficiencies to improve the overall financial performance of a business.

• competitive advantage – win new businesses, such as tenders and contracts where ISO 14001 is a requirement.

• embed environmental thinking into a business – ISO 14001 can provide a focus for employees, managers, and suppliers whilst placing environmental thinking at the heart of business planning and strategy.

According to BSI (PDF, 7.6 MB), ISO 14001 certification can result in benefits for smaller businesses, with 53% of SMEs reporting reduced business risk and 52% reporting ISO 14001 helping increase their competitiveness.

Things to consider when implementing ISO 14001

There are some considerations SMEs should take into account when deciding whether to apply for ISO 14001 certification.

ISO 14001 can be quite a difficult system to implement into a business environment, particularly if it's a situation where significant overhauls are needed.

Due to its complexity, ISO14001 can also be quite time-consuming to implement so it's a good idea to have a few dedicated employees to oversee implementing an environmental management system.

Costs may also vary depending on the size and complexity of your business.

Reference to any organisation, business and event on this page does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation from the British Business Bank or the UK Government. Whilst we make reasonable efforts to keep the information on this page up to date, we do not guarantee or warrant (implied or otherwise) that it is current, accurate or complete. The information is intended for general information purposes only and does not take into account your personal situation, nor does it constitute legal, financial, tax or other professional advice. You should always consider whether the information is applicable to your particular circumstances and, where appropriate, seek professional or specialist advice or support.

Green Decoder

Featuring a glossary of sustainable terms curated in partnership with the Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University, our green decoder is helping smaller businesses decipher the terminology surrounding decarbonisation.

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