ISO 14001, why the new changes matter

Greg Roberts, Manager at Ramboll Environ, discusses the new version of ISO 14001 and what it means for universities

With a new version of the international standard for Environmental Management Systems (EMS) ISO 14001 to be published this month, Greg Roberts, Sustainability and UK Expert on the ISO Technical Committee developing guidance for ISO 14001 implementation, explains the changes, why they are important and how to start the transition process. 

Universities already certified to ISO 14001 enjoy many advantages. Their EMS should be reducing cost, managing compliance and improving reputations amongst current and prospective students, employees and funders. 

The new version of ISO 14001 – updated for the first time in 10 years – builds on the standard’s existing strengths but also improves its integration with wider business processes. Getting ahead of these requirements and starting the transition process early can therefore bring greater benefits to organisations already signed up. 

Key requirements

ISO 14001:2015 will look and feel quite different to its predecessor, not least because it will follow a defined ISO high level structure meaning easier integration between ISO 14001, ISO 9001 and the new OHSAS 18001 replacement, ISO 45001, which will be published next year. Its changes can be summarised in five main areas:

1.   Leadership: Cross-functional senior managers will need to promote and be accountable for the EMS, ensuring it achieves its intended outcomes. Your EMS should be integrated with other organisational processes and be compatible with your strategy so that decisions are made with consideration for the environment at all levels.     

2.   Strategic context: You will be expected to demonstrate a broader understanding of the context in which you operate and ensure your EMS responds in order to meet its intended outcome – which is the overall goal of your EMS. This requires understanding your organisation’s direction, culture and resources and external influences – political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal. The new standard flips the question “what’s your impact on the environment” to also consider the impact of the environment on you, for example climate change and resource scarcity.  

3.   Interested party analysis and communication: Your EMS will need to become more outward looking by understanding the needs and expectations of your interested parties or stakeholders (students, local communities, regulators etc). You will need to plan communication relevant to these requirements. Robust monitoring, measurement and internal auditing processes will be needed. 

4.   Risks and opportunities: There are three principal sources of risks and opportunities: environmental aspects, compliance obligations and other issues. You will need to assess and address these sources in order for your EMS to be successful, as well as making your institution more robust to future challenges.

5.   Lifecycle perspective: You should determine environmental aspects at each stage of your product or service’s lifecycle, for example acquisition of raw materials, design, production, transportation/delivery, use, end of life treatment and final disposal – not just those relating to on-site activities. For the higher education sector this will be a complex challenge as the breadth of potential lifecycles is significant. Having the updated standard in place, however, will provide a valuable tool for sustainability departments that can lead to improved teaching and systems, backed up by the requirements of both internal and external audit.

Getting started

With a clear plan and early start, transitioning will be effective and efficient. Conversely, a lack of preparation could risk the loss of an ISO 14001 certificate. Organisations will have up to three years to become certified to the revised 14001 with the most logical time being at your next recertification audit.

‘The changes brought about by an updated ISO will certainly provide a new set of requirements that will make our EMS a more strategic and sustainability-based system’

A good way to plan your transition is by undertaking a gap assessment between your current EMS and ISO 14001:2015. If it identifies a lack of leadership commitment, this may be a suitable place to start. Not only is it a precursor to implementing the other changes needed, but it may also take longest to implement. Build awareness of the changes with senior management. One way of achieving buy in is to re-evaluate the business case for ISO 14001 – what benefit has it delivered and what more could it bring? Additional drivers are likely to have emerged since the certificate was first awarded; climate change and resource scarcity are now acknowledged business risks, and students and businesses expect more in relation to environmental performance.

Consider your lifecycle and particularly how you can add value off campus. This is something that Simon Goldsmith, Head of Sustainability at the University of Greenwich has been exploring. He comments, “If the approximately two million students currently studying graduate with the future skills the planet and our societies truly need, then the sector has acted as a significant lever for change. The changes brought about by an updated ISO will certainly provide a new set of requirements that will make our EMS a more strategic and sustainability-based system. The lifecycle perspective of ISO 14001, for example, could result in a greater impact than any on site improvement can achieve.” 

Context and interested parties – as new requirements – need specific attention too. Consider a workshop approach with cross-functional representatives providing the wide scope of knowledge required.

There is less emphasis now, though, on documentation. Bear this in mind when routinely reviewing documents and to save time, start bringing them in line with ISO 14001:2015 from now on. 


The last word should be sustainability. 80% of students believe that sustainable development should be actively promoted and incorporated by UK universities.[1]

Even for those with sophisticated systems in place for sustainability and carbon management, these revisions to ISO 14001 will play an important role in helping them take a holistic approach and become more sustainable overall. Above all, they will introduce mainstream processes for recognising and responding to mid and long term environmental challenges and provide an additional framework for universities to become even more receptive to stakeholder needs.