Today, April 22, is Earth Day, a day when environmental issues such as climate change and sustainability are nationally highlighted and people across the United States discuss of solutions, for the public and for businesses, that will help keep this planet healthy. The first Earth Day took place in April 1970, and it was followed by Congress authorizing the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) later that year.
In terms of corporate sustainability efforts, the EPA provides resources to companies to help them implement environmental management systems (EMS), which are a “set of processes and practices that enable an organization reduce its environmental impacts and increase its operational efficiency”. The EPA further defines an EMS as a “framework that helps an organization achieve its environmental objectives through consistent review, evaluation, and improvement of its environmental performance.” Although an EMS cannot determine the environmental standard a company should achieve, it will help leaders see areas that need work, so each organization should customize its EMS to suit its needs and goals. .
According to the EPA, there are several basic components of an EMS that company management must understand. To have an effective EMS, employers must:
- Review the organization’s environmental goals
- Analyze environmental impacts and compliance obligations, legal or otherwise
- Set environmental goals and targets to reduce environmental impacts and stay compliant
- Establish programs to achieve these goals and targets
- Monitor and measure progress and achievements
- Ensure employee environmental awareness and competence
- Review EMS progress and make improvements
An EMS is meant to be proactive, cost-effective, and able to meet regulatory requirements in a systematic way, and taking these steps can help a business achieve greater sustainability. The goal is to reduce the risk of non-compliance while simultaneously improving overall EHS practices for employees and the public, the EPA explains.
Leaders should aim to achieve a continuous cycle of improvement when implementing an EMS. The EPA cites the most commonly used EMS framework, developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) for the ISO 14001 standard, which follows a five-step process that repeats indefinitely and is intended to produce continuous progress.
- Commitment to politics: Senior management is committed to improving the environment and establishes the organization’s environmental policy, which becomes the foundation of the EMS.
- Planning: Identify the environmental aspects of the company’s operations, determine which aspects are significant by choosing the criteria that the organization considers most important, set overall environmental objectives and detailed and quantified targets to aim for, then propose a plan for action to achieve these objectives which includes the designation of responsibilities and the establishment of a timetable as well as the defined steps to be followed.
- Implementation: Follow the action plan using the necessary resources, document everything, follow operational procedures, set up internal and external lines of communication and ensure that all employees, including interns and contractors, are trained and sensitized to new policies and practices.
- Evaluation: Monitor business operations to assess whether or not set targets and objectives are being met, and if not, take corrective action.
- Review: Management reviews the results of the assessment to see if the EMS is working, determines if the original environmental policy is consistent with the values of the organization, and then revises the plan to optimize the effectiveness of the EMS.
Costs and Benefits
The EPA outlines the costs and benefits that employers could see if they implemented an EMS in their organization. Internal costs would include staff and manager time and other employee time, and external costs would include potential consultant assistance and training of outside staff.
The list of potential benefits that can come from implementing an EMS covers several different aspects of a business. From a business perspective, an effective EMS can lead to improved environmental performance, increased compliance, new customers and markets, increased efficiency, reduced costs, and an improved image with the public, regulators, lenders and investors. On a larger scale, an EMS can help prevent pollution, conserve resources, raise employee awareness of environmental issues and responsibilities, and improve employee morale, which can help make a more sustainable business.
For more information, Click here to see the complete list of EPA resources related to the EMS.