ISO 14001, the international environmental management standard

If you want to improve your environmental performance in a structural way, an environmental management system is a must. It allows you to reduce waste, take resource efficiency to the next level and minimise the ecological footprint of your organisation. Thanks to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) the combined expertise and know-how of international experts is easily accessible. The requirements of ISO 14001 give your environmental management system every chance of success.

  1. What is ISO 14001?
  2. Why apply ISO 14001?
  3. Who is ISO 14001 intended for?
  4. ISO 14001 certification
  5. ISO 14001 external audit
  6. Training on ISO 14001
  7. Part of the ISO 14000 family

Do you want to dive straight into the requirements for a solid environmental management system?

Purchase NBN EN ISO 14001:2015 in the NBN e-shop. The standard is available in English, Dutch, French and German.

1. What is ISO 14001?

ISO 14001 (Environmental management systems – Requirements with guidance for use) indicates what a solid environmental management system entails. The objective: 

  • to improve your environmental performance;
  • to better communicate about your environmental efforts to relevant stakeholders;
  • to support your organisation in complying with existing rules and laws;
  • to protect the environment by reducing or countering negative effects.

The essence of an environmental management system

An environmental management system is preferably part of your overall management system and focusses specifically on controlling and improving your environmental performance through a holistic approach. As an organisation, you must take all environmental issues relevant to your operations into account. These include air pollution, (waste)water management, soil pollution, climate change mitigation and efficient resource use. Only by systematically including all these factors in your policy will you achieve high-impact results.

The name of the standard, explained

Officially the standard is called NBN EN ISO 14001:2015 in Belgium.

  • NBN: in our country, NBN is responsible for the publication of (international and European) standards. Any standard that is published in Belgium automatically gets this addition.
  • EN: this refers to the European publication by CEN-CENELEC.
  • ISO: this refers to the international publication by ISO.
  • 2015: the year when the last revision and related Belgian publication took place.


ISO 14001: 10 chapters

One of the major changes made during the last revision of ISO 14001 in 2015 was the introduction of the High-Level Structure (HLS). Tens of other management standards have undergone the same transformation in recent years. The importance of this evolution can hardly be overestimated. With HLS, ISO ensures that all management standards have the same basic structure, which makes it easier for organisations to integrate various management standards into one single management system.

For example, environmental management is perfectly compatible with quality management (ISO 9001), energy management (ISO 50001) and risk management (ISO 31000).


The High-Level Structure makes management standards even more accessible

Hendrik Decroos, representative for Belgium and NBN in the international workgroup that revises the HLS, explains why the HLS is a blessing for organisations looking to integrate several management standards into a management system. 

More concretely, HLS requires ISO 14001 to consist of these ten chapters:

  1. Scope
  2. Normative references
  3. Terms and definitions       
  4. Context of the organisation
  5. Leadership
  6. Planning: objectives and risks
  7. Support of the ISMS
  8. Operation of the ISMS
  9. Performance evaluation
  10. Improvement

2. Why apply ISO 14001?

The biggest advantages of ISO 14001:

  • Legal aid: an environmental management system allows you to check if your operational procedures comply with current and future environmental regulations.
  • Lower costs: by using your resources more wisely, focussing on energy efficiency and introducing smart waste management, you keep your expenses under control.
  • Improved customer confidence: in a society where customers and companies consider sustainability to be a top priority, applying ISO 14001 leads to better environmental performance and thus more loyalty.
  • More engagement: organisational leadership is actively involved in an environmental management system. Moreover, you stimulate the commitment and empowerment of employees.
  • Tailor made: both public and private organisations can apply the standard, independent of size or sector.
  • International regard: the ISO management standard is internationally recognised and boosts your credibility during negotiations.
  • Internal learning curve: because you have to document your environmental indicators accurately and often communicate about them, your organisation acquires a great deal of expertise.


3. Who is ISO 14001 intended for?

Each organisation has a certain environmental impact on its surroundings. Therefore, the standard offers a useful framework for organisations from every sector, big or small: micro business, SMEs, large companies and multinationals, governments, research institutions, universities, NGOs, et cetera.


4. ISO 14001 certification

ISO 14001, the international standard for environmental management systems, is the second-most popular standard when it comes to valid certificates. According to the latest ISO Survey (2018) no fewer than 447,547 sites worldwide possess an ISO 14001 certificate, of which 1,637 are in Belgium. This is an increase of 23.4% compared to 2017.

What is an ISO 14001 certificate?

A certificate is written and objective proof of compliance with all requirements of ISO 14001. You receive one after an accredited certification institution confirms the correct and complete implementation of the management standard though an audit. The certificate is valid for 3 years. Afterwards, you can renew your certificate (if you want) by repeating the whole process. In between, there’ll be control audits – normally once a year.

Important: certification for ISO 14001 is – as is the decision to implement the standard – voluntary.

Why obtain an ISO 14001 certificate?

Although certification is by no means mandatory, it does benefit you greatly. These are the biggest benefits of an ISO 14001 certificate:

  1. More certainty: by undergoing external audits, the management is guaranteed that all relevant risks are identified and dealt with, and that the organisation takes the environmental regulations into account.
  2. Credible image: everyone wants your organisation to be in line with environmental regulations. A certificate boosts the confidence of prospects, clients, suppliers, shareholders, partners, employees and other stakeholders.
  3. Asset for tenders: an increasing number of private and public organisations integrate environmental performance into their selection requirements for tenders. If you can present an ISO 14001 certificate or prove that you’re working towards one, you add value to your application.
  4. Continuous improvement of environmental performance: obtaining and retaining a certificate implies that you undergo periodic audits. This prospect obliges you to continuously optimise your environmental management system.

How do you obtain an ISO 14001 certificate?

Although ISO, IEC and NBN facilitate the development of standards, these organisations are not involved in the certification process. In other words, you can never be certified by ISO, IEC or NBN. That is the job of independent certification institutions after the favourable assessment of your ISMS.


Which institutions grant certificates for ISO 14001?

In Belgium, there are many institutions that certify organisations for ISO 14001 after a certification audit. However, not all of them are accredited by BELAC, the Belgian accreditation institution. This recognition isn’t necessary, but it does give you extra assurance that the audit process will be executed competently. Why? Accreditation guarantees technical competence, independency and impartiality. 

In our country, you can find a list of all accredited certification institutions that can provide an ISO/IEC 27001 certificate via the BELAC website.

ISO 14001 certification: checklist    

Are you planning on getting your environmental management system certified? These steps will increase your chances of success:

  1. Support: An environmental management system has a big impact on certain areas of your organisation. The first step is to make sure everyone is on the same page and understands the implications. 
  1. Purchase NBN EN ISO 14001:2015 : Go to the NBN e-shop and buy the Dutch, English, French or German version of the standard to keep the requirements close by.
  1. Training: Before you set off, make sure you fully understand the principles of an environmental management system based on ISO 14001. NBN Learning Solutions offers training and learning paths to quickly get you up to speed.
  1. Baseline measurement: Establish a baseline measurement with your colleagues or an external service provider. This analysis of the current vs desired situation reveals your biggest working points. 
  1. Preparation: With the previous analysis in mind, elaborate an action plan with specific targets for your organisation and its management. Make a plan, distribute roles and appoint project teams if necessary.
  1. Communication: Inform all relevant stakeholders once the rollout of your plan takes shape. That will make the actual implementation a lot easier.
  1. Implementation: Execute all planned actions and work (steadily) towards full implementation of the management standard. 
  1. Internal audit: An internal audit demonstrates whether you have implemented the standard correctly. It serves as both general preparation for the certification audit and a requirement of certification.
  1. Certification audit: Contact a certification institution for an external audit. Prepare well and discuss shortcomings afterwards.
  1. Certification: If your organisation ticks all the boxes, you’ll be awarded a certificate. Obviously, this implies continuing to work on your environmental management system. Certification is not an end goal, but one of many milestones.

The time you need to complete this checklist depends on the complexity, size and maturity of your organisation. Some do in it 6 months, while others need 3 years or more.


ISO 14001 certification: costs

The price tag depends on various elements. For example, will you receive support from an external partner or do everything yourself? Besides that, the size and complexity of your organisation can either raise or lower the costs. One thing is for sure: you’ll need to contact a certification institution to perform the external audit. Normally, you sign a three-year contract with the institution – equal to the validity period of a certificate.

5. ISO 14001 external audit

An independent certification institution assesses your conformity to the requirements of ISO 14001.


What happens during an external audit?

Once three months have passed after the full implementation of the management standard, you can initiate the certification process and plan an external audit. That audit will take one or more days, depending on the size of your organisation. Are your facilities spread over various locations? The auditor will visit all relevant locations.

The initial certification audit consists of 2 phases:

  • Phase 1: the auditor verifies the structure of your management system and your documentation. Moreover, they assess the specific context of your organisation. At the end, you’ll receive the conclusions about your readiness for phase 2 as well as information on aspects you need to work on, if applicable.
  • Phase 2: the auditor evaluates the implementation and the effectiveness of your environmental management system. To do so, they gather proof, possibly through interviews, to verify conformity.

What happens after the audit?

After the audit, the certification institution decides whether or not you have implemented the requirements correctly and completely. These are the possible outcomes:

  • A negative response means you’ll receive a report with non-conformities. In that case, you’ll have to arrange for a new audit to take place.
  • An affirmative response with conditions means certification is only possible after you correct certain elements and provide a corresponding action plan.
  • An affirmative response results in certification. Afterwards, the auditor will visit you annually for a control audit. Every 3 years – the validity of a certificate –, you can apply for renewal.


How to prepare for an audit?

These 4 tips raise your chances of success:

  1. Run an internal audit – alone or with external help – to track down shortcomings.
  2. Make sure the management team is present during the audit and that all employees are aware an audit is taking place.
  3. Make all necessary documents easily accessible and verify if they are redacted using the terminology of the standard.
  4. Elaborate a list of successful, measurable actions and projects that guarantee continuous improvement.

6. Training on ISO 14001


Do you want to get to know the ISO 14001 management standard better? The follow our basic training or expert training.

  • E-Learning: an interactive, online learning platform about the basics of ISO 14001. With theory, examples, videos and exercises. Put together by experts. You learn everything about environmental impact, environmental management and the ISO 14001 standard.

The ideal training, because you: don't need any prior knowledge, learn where and when you want, receive a one-year access to the learning platform and obtain a diploma.

Follow e-learning (available in NL and FR)

  • Master Track: a unique learning programme about environmental management to expand  your expertise. The course comprises 4 parts: an introduction to ISO 14001, two in-depth classroom sessions and a final test with a classroom presentation.

The ideal training, because you: all start with the same prior knowledge, learn to interpret and use the ISO 14001 standards, get to know management techniques, make your first steps in the world of environmental management audits and obtain a diploma.

Sign up for the Master Track (available in NL and FR)

7. Part of the ISO 14000 family

The ISO 14000 series of standards helps organisations to be environmentally responsible. The best-known – and only certifiable standard – is ISO 14001:2015. The other standards focus on specific elements regarding environmental management systems, such as auditing, labelling, eco-design and lifecycle analysis. These are some of the lesser-known family members:

  • NBN ISO 14044:2006 – Environmental management – Lifecycle assessment – Requirements and guidelines
  • NBN EN ISO 14004:2016 – Environmental management systems – General guidelines on implementation: this standards contains guidelines for the establishment, implementation, maintenance and improvement of a reliable environmental management system.
  • NBN EN ISO 14005:2019 – Environmental management systems – Guidelines for a flexible approach to a phased implementation: this offers you a framework for a flexible and phased implementation of ISO 14001. Perfect for SMEs that wish to take it step by step.
  • NBN EN ISO 14006:2020 – Environmental management systems – Guidelines for incorporating eco-design: this standard can be used by organisations that already have an environmental management system based on ISO 14001, but that wish to add eco-design to the mix.
  • NBN EN ISO 14015:2010 – Environmental management – Environmental assessment of sites and organizations
  • NBN EN ISO 14044:2006 – Environmental management – Lifecycle assessment – Principles and framework

Ready to fully grasp the benefits of NBN EN ISO 14001:2015?

Purchase the standard in the NBN e-shop and get immediate access to all requirements for an efficient and effective environmental management system. 

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