Environmental management—International Standard ISO 14001:2015

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Produced in partnership with Ardea International

What is ISO 14001:2015?

ISO 14001:2015 is an internationally accepted standard that defines the requirements for establishing, implementing and operating an environmental management system (EMS). It is part of the ISO 14000 family of standards for managing environmental responsibilities. It aims to provide a structured approach to planning, implementing and managing an EMS. It is not a regulation or legally required standard, but a set of formal documented procedures subject to third party audit and verification. The guidance for use of the standard states that it can be used, either in whole or in part, to systematically improve environmental management.

ISO 14001:2015 is a voluntarily standard designed to be adopted by organisations operating in any sector. Registration/certification is not mandatory. An organisation may self-declare its EMS, setting out details of any third party audit and verification that has been undertaken.

Implementation is based on a 'plan-do-check-act' (PDCA) cycle, requiring ongoing review and continual improvement, evidenced by EMS documentation and records.

Registration/certification of an organisation under ISO 14001:2015 provides investors, lenders, insurers and employees with some comfort that the organisation has the tools and procedures to eliminate or mitigate any adverse impacts it may have on the environment.

Since the 2015 update to ISO 14001, guidelines for implementing and strengthening specific aspects of an EMS have been published. The full ISO 14000 series can be accessed on the ISO website.

For more information on EMS, see Practice Note: Environmental management—environmental management systems (EMS).


Revision of ISO 14001

ISO 14001:2004 was substantially amended by ISO 14001:2015 issued in September 2015. The revised ISO 14001:2015 has greater implications for organisations than the 2004 version. The changes introduced a clear shift in emphasis. The revised edition separates strategic and operational environmental issues to ensure that appropriate attention is given to environmental issues at a strategic level.

There is a clear focus on:

  • leadership
  • the context in which a company operates, and
  • how they will demonstrate legal compliance

For background to the revision, see ISO: ISO 14001 Revision

Key changes

Seven major changes were made to the standard in 2015. These were:

  • greater expectation of top management involvement and understanding of the organisation’s environmental issues
  • broader strategic consideration of an organisation’s environmental context, including the interests of stakeholders
  • specific commitments to sustainable development
  • extending environmental influence to the supply chain
  • embracing opportunities for using environmental design as a tool for improvement
  • demonstrating environmental legal compliance
  • using key performance indicators (KPIs) to track performance

ISO 14001:2004 required that an organisation must have an environmental policy in place and to have carried out a risk assessment based on its current environmental impacts and set objectives and targets. While the updated standard requires the publication of an environmental policy the emphasis has shifted. For example, risk is now to be considered in a more strategic manner. The policy should also take into account sustainable development principles.



ISO 14001:2015 places a strong emphasis on leadership and the role that senior managers are required to play in the development of the EMS. They are expected to:

  • provide active support and be accountable under the standard
  • establish environmental objectives compatible with the context and strategic direction of the organisation
  • provide adequate resources
  • promote continued improvement
  • create a culture and environment that encourages leadership roles
  • integrate EMS into business processes
  • assign responsibility for assessing and reporting on the effectiveness of the EMS

Senior management are also responsible for implementing and maintaining the environmental policy. The policy must include environmental protection commitments relating to the organisation’s activities (eg control of chemicals used by the organisation). Top management are also responsible for ensuring the policy is maintained and communicated to internal/external stakeholders.


Context of the organisation

ISO 14001:2015 requires an organisation to understand the context in which it operates. This means determining the external and internal issues that are relevant to its purpose and how this might impact on the intended outcome of the EMS. The guidance in the revised standard states that understanding the organisation’s context will provide it with the knowledge that is used to guide its efforts to establish, implement, maintain and continually improve its EMS.

An organisation is also required to gain a conceptual understanding of issues affecting the function of the EMS. This means establishing contextual factors which may have an effect (whether positive or negative) on the ability of the EMS to produce the desired outcomes. These can include:

  • local environmental conditions such as resource availability or climate
  • the external social, political and legal context and considerations can range from local to international level
  • the scale, capabilities and activities of the organisation itself



ISO 14001:2015 requires companies to review the impact of their environmental aspects.

An organisation wishing to register in accordance with ISO 14001:2015 must carry out an initial review to identify its current environmental impacts. Depending on the sector and particular details of the organisation's operations, impacts may include:

  • waste streams
  • air emissions
  • use of energy
  • energy emitted (eg heat, noise, light)
  • discharge to water systems
  • discharge to land
  • storage of chemicals
  • use of natural resources

The terminology most frequently used in this context is environmental 'aspects' and 'impacts'.

ISO 14001:2015 defines an 'aspect' as an element of an organisation's activities, products or services that can interact with the environment.

It defines an 'impact' as any change to the environment, whether adverse or beneficial, wholly or partly resulting from an organisation's environmental aspects.

An organisation is required to identify each relevant 'aspect' of its business (eg waste generation) and then to assess its 'impact' (eg percentage of waste disposed of to landfill).

An organisation is required to establish criteria to determine which aspects constitute ‘significant environmental aspects’. These environmental aspects are to be the central considerations when drafting environmental objectives. The risks and opportunities associated with significant environmental aspects may need to be addressed to allow the EMS to function effectively.

A new concept of ‘risks and opportunities’ was introduced under ISO 14001:2015. Any element that may have an impact on achieving the desired outcomes of the EMS is referred to as a ‘risk or opportunity’. Planning requires the identification of risks and opportunities related to environmental aspects, compliance obligations and other issues and requirements.

Risks and opportunities arising outside of environmental aspects and compliance obligations can include:

  • economic constraints limiting resources available to support the EMS
  • extreme weather that could impact the premises
  • government grants to finance environmental protection equipment

An organisation is required to create an action plan to address:

  • significant environmental aspects
  • compliance obligations
  • risks and opportunities

This plan must include a strategy to implement necessary changes and evaluate their effectiveness in reaching predefined environmental objectives.


Objectives, targets and management systems

ISO 14001:2015 requires an organisation to establish environmental objectives at relevant functions and levels. To achieve this, it must take into account the organisations significant environmental aspects and its compliance obligations. It will also have to consider the risks and opportunities associated with threats and opportunities.

The objectives must be continually monitored, communicated, and updated where necessary. Organisations are required to set out a plan for achieving the objectives. This includes assigning personnel, resources, and establishing a suitable monitoring programme.


Compliance obligations

ISO 14001:2015 refers to ‘compliance obligations’. These are broader than ‘legal obligations’ and include any other requirements that an organisation has to or chooses to comply with. Organisations are expected to:

  • identify and have access to the compliance obligations related to its environmental aspects
  • determine how the compliance obligations apply to the organisation
  • maintain documented information on its compliance obligations

Compliance is also tied to interested parties and to assessment of risks and opportunities. Documents should be retained as evidence to the compliance evaluation results. Environmental legal registers, for example, are one means of documenting information, see Practice Note: Environmental management—environmental legal registers.


Interested parties

ISO 14001:2015 requires organisations to identify interested parties. This can include customers, regulators, shareholders, investors and internal employees. They must understand the needs and expectations of interested parties. In some cases, interested parties may not express expectations beyond mandatory legal requirements. Otherwise, voluntary compliance obligations can be adopted as organisational requirements. These can include:

  • NGO initiatives
  • voluntary industry standards
  • agreements with comunity groups or public bodies
  • codes of practice


Operational controls

ISO 14001:2015 is flexible with regards to how organisations mitigate risks through operational controls as there is no single solution to encompass all organisations’ activities. Broadly speaking, methods can include:

  • implementing tighter procedural controls
  • monitoring process results
  • implementing increased technical controls in processes
  • designing processes with error mitigation and consistency in mind


Environmental influence on the supply chain

ISO 14001:2015 introduced life cycle perspectives to how outsourced processes within the scope of the EMS are controlled and influenced. The standard requires that the organisation must determine environmental requirements for the procurement of products and services as appropriate. The organisation is required to communicate these expectations to all supplies and contractors. As part of operational planning, potential significant environmental aspects associated with the transportation and disposal of products must be considered. By gathering information on these aspects, organisations can gain a full picture of impacts and necessary mitigation throughout the lifecycle. Where relevant, the environmental performance of suppliers and contractors themselves should be considered as environmental aspects in their own right.

Another aspect of operational control that organisations must address is emergency preparedness and response. This means planning action to mitigate environmental impacts and ensuring emergency measures and training are periodically assessed.


Tracking performance

There is a requirement in ISO 14001:2015 that environmental objectives need to be broadly aligned and harmonised with commitments made by top management in the environmental policy.

Indicators should be selected to measure the achievement of objectives. The selection of indicators is at the discretion of the organisation. They can be aligned with any regulatory requirements, expectations of stakeholders and company objectives.

The organisation is responsible for establishing an adequate internal audit programme. The purpose of the audit is to assess whether the EMS is being maintained and conforms to the requirements set out by the organisation and ISO 14001. The audit criteria and schedule are at the discretion of the organisation. There is a requirement that auditors remain objective.

The audit results must be subject to a senior management review at planned intervals. The purpose of the review is to assess the continuing function of the EMS in light of any contextual changes. This means considering new environmental risks and opportunities, changing significance of environmental aspects, and developing regulatory or stakeholder expectations.

Where nonconformities or opportunities for improvement are identified, the standard requires appropriate remediation and review procedures take place to ensure continual improvement.