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What is an Environmental Management System?

By Licia Morrow
Updated May 17, 2024
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An environmental management system (EMS) ensures that governmental agencies and public or private businesses can limit their negative impact on the environment while continuing to run efficiently. An EMS is built on a structure of planning processes, applying principles, monitoring outcomes, and correcting operations. This structure is designed to improve business operations and efficiently reduce environmental impact.

During the cycle of an environmental management system, several outcomes can be anticipated and expected. These include the development of higher quality environmental awareness and compliance, the conservation of resources, an increase in profits and decrease of costs, and an improvement of public image to expanding markets. Although an increase in profits may be expected in the long run, there are upfront costs associated with an EMS such as employee training, technical analysis, and consultant outsourcing.

Most EMS programs follow a four-step process which has been referred to as "Plan, Do, Check, Act." This structure follows guidelines as set out by ISO 14001. ISO stands for International Organization for Standardization, and it develops and communicates standards internationally within a group of 161 countries that strive for a common understanding of needs in public and private arenas. ISO 14001 specifically deals with the structure of an environmental management system and has become a standard of consensus on correct practices with reference to the environment.

ISO 14001 has several goals including management control over the policies of an organization and the education of employees regarding their role in environmental practices. Furthermore, ISO 14001 sets standards for the ways in which a company handles communicating its environmental responsibility to outside entities such as customers, shareholders, and communities. The focus of ISO 14001 is to support and shape an organization’s plans, structure, and communication when it comes to setting up and maintaining an environmental management system.

The International Organization for Standardization has set up a generic system that applies broadly to any company or government agency. Companies that are ISO 14001 certified and registered have been investigated by an independent entity that ensures environmental management system compliance, issues a certificate, and registers the organization in its client register. These certificates and registries add value to an organization by providing proof of environmental awareness, training, and implementation.

Beyond the scope of a generic ISO environmental management system, several sectors of the economy and government have requirements that fit their specific needs. Education, health care, medical devices, and petroleum and gas are examples of areas where ISO specifies requirements by industry or group. For example, Automotive and Food Safety are two sectors where supply chain is the main focus in maintaining consistency.

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