BS7750 sets the environmental standardisation bandwagon rolling

The British Standards Institution (BSI) has achieved a world first with BS7750, a standard on environmental management systems which will provide a key test of the effectiveness of voluntary action by industry and commerce to improve their environmental performance. It also anticipates a coming wave of international standards on issues such as environmental auditing and performance measurement, life-cycle analysis and eco-labelling.

BS7750 will not in itself create a revolution in business attitudes to environmental protection, but its publication marks a significant point in that relationship.

The standard describes what until now has been done privately and with varying degrees of rigour by a small minority of pioneering companies. Its publication will make it easier for any business intent on improving its environmental performance to set up the necessary management systems and furnish evidence to interested parties that it has done so. Those parties are increasingly likely to include other companies or public bodies keen to ensure that they are selling to or buying from environmentally responsible businesses.

This is one way in which BS7750 will help to institutionalise environmental protection. A second is that the process of drafting and publicising the standard has whetted the appetite of the BSI and its sister organisations at national and international level for deeper involvement in the environmental arena. This happily coincides with the interest of major corporations in persuading the authorities that voluntary action by business can deliver sound environmental performance. For those reasons, a series of new environmental standards can be expected from the standardisation bodies in the years ahead.

Links with quality systems
BS7750 is linked both in numbering and to a degree in content with BS5750, the standard dealing with quality management systems whose purpose is to ensure that customer requirements are met in a consistent manner. More than 15,000 UK companies have now achieved registration under BS5750, and some - especially in the chemical industry - wanted the existing standard to be extended to embrace environmental management rather than have this dealt with by a separate standard audited by a separate audit team.

But the BSI resisted on the grounds that there is scope for management decisions on quality to run into conflict with environmental objectives, and that it would be better to have two separate standards to bring such conflicts into the open. The dispute is now likely to switch to the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) as it drafts its own standard on environmental management systems.

The main components of the system specified by the new standard are set out below in the sequence in which a company will have to implement them:

  • Preparatory review: This should inform the company where it is placed against legislative requirements, evaluate its impacts on the environment, and result in a critical appraisal of its existing environmental management practices and procedures.

  • Environmental policy: The second step is for the firm's top management to develop an environmental policy. It is a key requirement of BS7750 that this includes "a commitment to continuous improvement of environmental performance." The policy must also provide for the setting and publication of environmental objectives, and must itself be publicly available.

  • Organisation and personnel: The standard requires the nomination of a management representative with the authority and responsibility for ensuring that its provisions are met. It also sets out basic requirements in communications and training of all personnel in their responsibilities under the standard, and obliges companies to provide the resources and personnel to implement and verify compliance with their policies.

  • Registers: Companies are required to keep a register of environmental regulations pertaining to their activities, products and services. A second register will contain details of the environmental effects caused by the company's business.

    As in its provisions on environmental policies, BS7750 also acknowledges the external interest in corporate environmental performance by requiring firms to establish procedures for documenting and responding to communications with "relevant interested parties" on their environmental effects and management practices. "Interested parties" are the regulatory authorities, local residents, investors, insurers, employees, customers, consumers, environmental groups and the general public, and the guide adds that their views "may" assist firms in identifying and evaluating their environmental effects.

    The register of effects could be wide-ranging. In addition to those caused directly by its current activities, a company should consider the "environmental probity" of its suppliers, the guide says. Consideration should also be given to the environmental effects of past activities, and potential future consequences of present activities. Effects arising from support functions such as finance and planning, and indirect effects - such as extraction of raw materials by a supplier - should also be evaluated.

  • Objectives and targets: The guide to BS7750 stipulates that a firm's objectives "should include a commitment to continual, year-on-year improvement in overall environmental performance, but not necessarily in all areas of activity." Objectives and targets should be quantified where possible.

    The standard itself provides that, in addition to compliance with legal requirements, "other objectives and targets should be identified after consideration of the environmental effects register and the financial, operational and business requirements of the organisation, in conjunction with the views of interested parties."

  • Environmental management programme: This will be a documented plan which describes the management system established by a company to achieve its objectives and targets.

  • Operational controls and records: The provisions of the standard in this area apply a quality systems approach - including documented procedures and record-keeping requirements - to ensure that policies and objectives are met and performance is recorded. Once again, it adds that companies should establish policies on the availability of records, "both within the organisation and to interested parties."

  • Audits: These will have a two-fold objective: to assess whether environmental management systems are conforming to the company's programme, and to measure their effectiveness in achieving its policy and objectives. An audit plan will define the scope and frequency of audits, personnel requirements, the audit protocol, and reporting procedures.

  • Reviews: The final step in the chain comprises periodic management reviews of the company's environmental management systems to ensure their continuing suitability and effectiveness. The standard adds that "the results of such reviews will be published if the organisation has a commitment to do so."

    It is clear that BS7750 will be a demanding instrument if companies observe its spirit as well as its letter. Its emphasis is strongly on the assessment of environmental effects across the full "life-cycle" of processes, products and services - a discipline still in its infancy. Identifying and dealing with past contamination is not something which will come easily to most businesses. The same will be true for most companies in a key area of the standard - its stress on facilitating public comment on and understanding of the company's environmental impacts.

    Let-out clauses
    On the other hand, some of the potentially most demanding issues are dealt with, not in the standard itself, but in the guide - and even this is often phrased in such a way as to give firms a let-out if they want one. The guide, for example, is littered with "mays" as distinct from "shalls" on issues such as assessments of the green credentials of suppliers, or the involvement of and provision of information to "interested parties".

    How companies handle these requirements in practice should become known next year, after some 50 businesses have completed a pilot application of BS7750. The trial run will end with a review of the standard in summer 1993, when any amendments needed to bring it into line with the EC proposal on eco-audits (ENDS Report 206, pp 18-20 ) will also be made.

    BS7750 does not itself specify any environmental performance requirements, and another key issue over the coming months will be the performance improvements which companies volunteer. Real improvements will help to convince that the voluntary approach can work.

    International standards
    The scope for voluntary industry action is also a major concern of the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD), a group of big businesses which is making industry's major input to the Earth Summit in Brazil in June. One of the BCSD's early initiatives was to prod the ISO into developing environmental performance standards for industry and commerce - a nettle which it has grasped with alacrity.

    Last year, the ISO established a Strategic Advisory Group on the Environment, and this has since spawned several sub-groups. These are likely to result in ISO standards on the following topics:

  • Environmental management systems for use by firms in assessing and demonstrating good environmental performance.

  • Environmental auditing, laying down a specification for audits.

  • Environmental labelling, where the ISO is likely to begin by defining terms such as "recyclable," "compostable", "degradable" and so on. It has already signalled that its standards will discourage the use of these terms where, for example, a recycling or composting facility is not available.

  • Environmental performance measurement to permit comparisons of the environmental impacts of products, processes and services on an objective basis. According to the ISO, "voluntary consensus standards developed by all interested parties" - including industry, regulators, and environmental and consumer groups - "in specific sectors could provide great benefit in that they would represent generally accepted and mutually comparable tools for the state-of-the-art in measuring and characterising environmental performance."

  • Life-cycle analysis, where the ISO will review existing LCA experience with a view to harmonisation of methodologies.

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