Environmental management plays an increasingly critical role in the protection of the environment and public health. Regulators and other stakeholders today expect businesses and public-sector organizations to be able to demonstrate that they are responsibly managing the environmental impacts of their activities. Most environmental managers rely on the use of environmental management systems (EMSs) not only to improve their organization's environmental performance, but to reduce costs, attract customers and enhance public image.

Environmental Management Systems

EMSs rely on processes and procedures that allow both the private and public sectors to analyze and reduce the environmental impact of their activities, and continuously improve performance. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) encourages organizations to use EMSs to help meet both regulatory requirements and voluntary stewardship goals in the areas of product design, energy efficiency and other sustainable practices. EPA recognizes many EMS frameworks, the most common among them the ISO 14001 worldwide environmental management standard.

ISO 14001 Standard

Launched in 1996, ISO 14001 is "the standard for organizations committed to taking care of the environment while taking care of business" in the 138 countries that use it today, according to ISO, or the International Organization for Standardization. While ISO 14001 specifies what requirements an EMS must meet, the standard is voluntary and allows for flexible implementation. Organizations that systematically employ ISO 14001 can enjoy many benefits, including reduced cost of waste management, lower distribution costs and savings in consumption of energy and raw materials. The EPA recognizes a variety of public and private EMS programs and models.

Public Initiatives

One successful initiative involves the EPA's Office of Water working toward sustainable environmental management by local governments, including water and wastewater facilities. The office supports a national EMS clearinghouse, the Public Entity EMS Resource Center, at http://www.peercenter.net. The site features guidance, audit, eco-mapping and other tools and case studies showing EMS successes among facilities at all levels of local government. Included is information on local resource centers designated to support EMS adoption by local governments.

Private Initiatives

One initiative aimed primarily at the private sector is EPA's Design for Environment (DfE) program. Working in partnership with industry and other stakeholders, it focuses on industries that combine the potential for chemical risk reduction and improvements in energy efficiency. The result are products, processes and services that are cost-effective, cleaner and safer. To date, the program has reached more than 200,000 facilities and some 2 million workers.

Other Initiatives

Businesses increasingly are requiring suppliers to meet strict EMS standards or become certified to other standards, including eco-label product certifications such as Germany's Blue Angel (http://www.blauer-engel.de/en/index.php) and Green Seal (http://www.greenseal.org). Green Seal, for example, works with producers, purchasing groups and governments to "green" the production and purchasing chain. Using a lifecycle approach, a product or service is evaluated starting with material extraction, and ending with recycling and disposal.

EMS Variations

While most EMSs tend to be based on the ISO 14001 standard, organizations also adopt their own variations. The Natural Step (http://www.naturalstep.org) offers a practical, science-based framework that helps communities and businesses integrate environmental, social and economic considerations into planning. The Balanced Scorecard (http://www.balancedscorecard.org) adds strategic non-financial performance measures to traditional financial metrics to provide a more balanced view of organizational performance.