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Although voluntary, the ISO 14000 standards are expected to become an international passport for companies seeking business in countries with a high level of environmental awareness. They are also seen by some as a means of leveling the playing field among the myriad of regional and national standards which could potentially become trade barriers.

ISO 14000 loosely refers to a series of voluntary standards to check whether a company has an effective environmental management system in place. The standards seek to harmonize practices in several areas, including environmental management, auditing, performance evaluation, labeling, and life-cycle analysis.

Of these, ISO 14000 itself is the standard for environmental management system guidance. It is modeled somewhat after ISO 9000, the well known quality standard. But there is a substantial difference. ISO 9000 is limited to exchanges between contracting parties. ISO 14000 pertains to an organization’s relationship to global ecology.

Pulp producers would benefit more from ISO 14000…

The ISO 14000 series includes three other standards. ISO 14001 sets environmental management system specifications. ISO 14010-12 establishes environmental auditing and related investigations, and ISO 14031 issues guidelines on environmental performance evaluation.

At the Oslo meeting, only ISO 14000 and ISO 14001 were approved. Those relating to eco-labeling, lifecycle analysis, and environmental performance tools had mixed success and will require further negotiating.

While ISO standards are written as voluntary consensus standards, some countries adopt them as law or use them as a basis for contracting. This means, effectively, that though not necessarily laws or regulations, ISO standards can become a marketing point.

Many officials, including some from developing nations, left the Oslo meeting convinced that the two standards would have a bigger impact on the environment than any government or intergovernmental treaty or program. Others, particularly governmental and private environmental groups, criticized the ISO standard for avoiding specifics.

According to Pierre Hauselmann, a policy adviser for the Worldwide Fund for Nature, one key part of ISO 14001 is the definition of continual improvement. But he says there is no base on which to establish improvement, meaning that continual improvement could begin at a very low level.

The Fund’s skepticism reflects the concerns of the European Union that ISO 14000 may be too weak to serve as a standard for its recently launched Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS). Indeed, the success of ISO 14000 standards could hinge on whether the EU decides to adopt ISO standards as compatible with EMAS, industry observers say.

In effect since April, EMAS itself is not detailed enough to be a standard, and the European Commission has asked the European Standards Organization, known by the French acronym CEN, to produce a Europeanwide standard. CEN has waited to see the draft versions of ISO 14000 and 14001 before it draws up its own European standard.

The next step after the Oslo meeting will be to determine EMAS and ISO 14001 compatibility — a feat that will be no less difficult than bringing the U.S. and Europe to agree on a basic framework for the ISO 14000 standards.

Among the major differences between ISO 14001 and EMAS:

* On environmental policy, EMAS specifies 12 key environmental issues that must be taken into account in a firm’s environmental policy and 11 principles of action. By contrast, ISO 14001 does not specify any issues, simply stating that top management must ensure that the policy is relevant to the nature, scale, and environmental impacts of its activities, products, and services.

* On environmental management systems, EMAS requires that the system and program apply to all activities on a site. Companies, for instance, must compile a register of “significant” environmental effects and past, current, and planned activities to assess these effects. By contrast, ISO 14001 directs a firm to set up a procedure and identify activities, products, and services that it can control or influence so as to determine which have or can have significant impacts on the environment. An example of this might be that a paper manufacturer would have much better benefits over a POS software developer, mainly because the raw inputs of producing paper from pulp creates so much more in the way of damage than simply working in a realm as “eco-friendly” as point of sale. On the other hand, any inputs the POS company could minimize to make their product more eco friendly (less paper in the transaction receipt process, as an example) would reflect well on them also.

* On public disclosure, EMAS contends that providing information to the public is essential for good environmental management. Companies that apply for EMAS certification must agree to publish an environmental statement detailing emissions output and resource consumption. By contrast, ISO 14001 shies away from demanding that companies make anything other than their environmental policies available to the public.

* On internal and external audits, EMAS mandates internal audits at least every three years to assess specified criteria, with a formal report of each audit cycle going to top management. Moreover, an independent, external verifier must validate the reliability and adequacy of the statement. ISO 14001 also requires periodic internal audits but does not specify in any detail the issues to be addressed nor the audit frequency. It also makes no mention of external verification.