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Environmental management systems - the basics

1. Overview

An environmental management system (EMS) is similar to other management systems, such as those that manage quality or safety. It assesses your business' strengths and weaknesses, helps you identify and manage significant environmental impacts, saves you money by increasing efficiency, ensures you comply with environmental legislation and provides benchmarks for improvements.

An EMS can also help you manage your resources, and improves the reliability and credibility of your environmental policy. You can prove to customers that you are committed to meeting your environmental responsibilities by getting your EMS certified, such as through ISO 14001, Green Dragon, BS 8555 or the Eco-Management and Audit Scheme.

This guide provides an introduction to EMS. It describes the main elements of an EMS breaking the process down into clear stages.

2. The benefits of an EMS

Setting up and running an environmental management system (EMS) can provide significant benefits across a number of areas of your business.

Key benefits

Running an effective EMS will help you with:

  • better regulatory compliance - running an EMS will help ensure your environmental legal responsibilities are met and more easily managed on a day-to-day basis
  • more effective use of resources - you will have policies and procedures in place that help you manage waste and resources more effectively and reduce costs
  • marketing - running an EMS will help you prove your business' credentials as an environmentally aware operation that has made a commitment to continual environmental improvement
  • finance - you may find it easier to raise investment from banks and other financial institutions, which are increasingly keen to see businesses controlling their environmental impact
  • increased sales opportunities - large businesses and government departments may only deal with businesses that have an EMS
  • lighter regulation - even if an EMS is not a regulatory requirement, by showing your commitment to environmental management, you may benefit through less frequent site visits or reduced fees from environmental regulators

Standards and EMS certification

Gaining external certification of your EMS can give your business credibility with customers and stakeholders. Certification schemes include ISO 14001, Green Dragon, BS 8555 and the Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS). This can help you sell more effectively, particularly to government and environmentally aware customers.

You can self-certify your EMS, but many customers and suppliers require external certification before they will recognise it. External certification also offers your stakeholders reassurance as they can be sure that the information you provide has been independently checked and verified.

See the page in this guide on certification and standards for EMS.

You can also highlight your commitment by producing an environmental report, for use in corporate social responsibility documents and annual reports. 

3. Where to start planning your EMS

There are a variety of approaches you can use to plan and set up your environmental management system (EMS). For information on the different standards, see the page in this guide on certification and standards for EMS.

This guide outlines the steps necessary for setting up an EMS using a stage-by-stage approach. It is a process that can lead to certification under the international standard ISO 14001, Green Dragon, the Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) and the British Standard BS 8555.

Start from the top

To give your EMS the best chance of being efficient and successful, you need to ensure the management of your business is committed to improving and managing environmental issues.

There are a number of benefits you can consider in order to persuade management of the benefits of running an EMS, including cost reduction, compliance with environmental legislation, better management of risk and significant marketing benefits. Without firm commitment from all members of your management teams, an EMS will lack focus and effectiveness.

Set the baseline

The process of setting up an EMS starts with a baseline assessment of where your business stands now, in terms of environmental management. Key areas to examine include:

  • the environmental impact of your business' products and services - both good and bad
  • an environmental history of the business - if you have environmental records available
  • environmental legislation relevant to your business and whether your operations comply
  • current and future risks

You could benchmark your business' environmental performance against similar operations to assess where you stand. It's essential to analyse all your business processes, stage by stage, to uncover where strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats are posed to good environmental management. To get a clear picture of any risks, you should look at all your business activities and their potential environmental impacts. Once you have identified your environmental impacts you need to work out which are significant and so need managing. Identifying the significant environmental impacts is very important because the rest of the EMS relies on it.

While this may sound a great deal of work, a methodical approach to a baseline assessment can make it much easier to achieve. Download the Acorn workbook from the Institute of Environmental Management And Assessment (IEMA) website (PDF, 1.83MB)

You can benchmark your business' environmental performance using the Environmental Index on the Business in the Community (BITC) website 

4. Comply with legal and other requirements

The cornerstone of your EMS is identifying the environmental legislation that applies to your day-to-day activities, and making sure that you comply.

Your business may also be subject to other requirements. These may include:

  • codes of practice
  • trade association and industry initiatives
  • other relevant local, regional, national and international initiatives
  • site and corporate environmental policies
  • relevant parts of your quality and health and safety policies

Meeting legal and other requirements

Once you have identified the legislation and regulations you must comply with, you need to work through them one-by-one to see how well your business is performing.

Even if you are complying with all the requirements, it can be a very useful exercise to examine all your business processes again to see if you can improve your performance. For example, you may be complying with relevant packaging regulations, but can you use a different type of packaging that performs the same function in a more environmentally-friendly way?

Addressing non-compliance

If you uncover areas where you are not complying with regulatory requirements or codes of practice, you must ensure that you address these immediately. You should develop a clearly defined action plan to help you achieve this.

Environmental Legislation for businesses in Wales

Take a look at the Register of Environmental Legislation from Natural Resources Wales.

5. Create a policy, and set targets and objectives

Once you have established your baseline and checked your legal obligations, you can move to the next stage of setting up your environmental management system (EMS) - setting targets and objectives and creating your first environmental policy.

Creating your environmental policy

The policy should be the guiding document in your EMS. It should clearly set out how you will manage the environmental impact of your business and should show what commitments you are prepared to make.

It should be based on the key information from your baseline assessment and legal compliance check stages. See the pages in this guide on where to start planning your EMS and how to comply with legal and other requirements.

There is no one perfect way to create a policy document - it will depend on the particular needs of your business. But there are some key elements you need to include, such as:

  • a commitment to continually improve your environmental performance
  • a commitment to comply with environmental legislation
  • a commitment to educate and train employees to enable them to work within the policy
  • how the policy will be implemented, managed and reviewed

Setting targets and objectives

To ensure that your policy is followed by all employees, you will need to set and monitor short-term targets and longer-term objectives. There are a number of management methods you can incorporate into your policy, including straightforward targets (such as reducing CO2 emissions by a set percentage each year), key performance indicators (for example, cost reductions achieved by implementing your EMS) and benchmarks (such as your business' resource efficiency against similar firms in your industry sector).

In all cases, you should ensure your targets and objectives are SMART - specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-limited.


Benchmarking provides an indication of how a business' environmental performance compares with others in its sector or industry standards. If you adopt a systematic approach to improving your performance you can save money and increase your profits without having to raise prices.

Use the Environment Index to benchmark your business' environmental performance on the Business in the Community (BITC) website 

6. Operating your EMS

Once you have set your policy and targets, you can start to put your environmental management system (EMS) into place. There are a number of management issues that you need to consider to ensure that the system is effective.

Management considerations

It's essential to define management responsibilities clearly for each area of your policy. For example, make it clear who is responsible for meeting any waste targets and who is responsible for monitoring the financial impact of the policy's implementation. Delegating specific responsibilities - and ensuring the management team is aware of these responsibilities - will significantly boost the policy's chances of success.

For activities with significant environmental impacts, you must also have operational procedures to control the impact. These should include roles, responsibilities, any specific training requirements and what to do in an emergency. These requirements should be incorporated into existing procedures, with appropriate document control.

Training and awareness

All staff need to be aware of the policy's purpose, and their role within it. It's a good idea to run training sessions, so every member of staff knows what is expected of them - and why.

Keep the plan on track

It's a good idea to consider using 'champions' to raise awareness of the new system and its operational controls. This can create more honest and effective communication between management and employees on issues related to your EMS. If you appoint a champion, you must ensure they are given complete management support in this role otherwise they will be undermined and their effectiveness diminished.

7. Review the EMS

An effective environmental management system (EMS) requires monitoring and updating. If you don't, the policy that guides it may become out of date and ineffective.

If you want external certification of your EMS, such as through ISO 14001, Green Dragon, BS 8555 or the Eco-Management and Audit Scheme, you will need to show that you are reviewing and improving your EMS on a regular basis.

Scheduling and managing reviews

By establishing clear internal auditing systems you can ensure that the measures contained in your policy are being implemented on a day-to-day basis. There are no specific rules you must follow, but you need to have in place:

  • procedures that monitor the overall effectiveness of your EMS
  • mechanisms that keep an eye on your targets and objectives
  • clear definitions of reporting and management responsibilities
  • regularly scheduled reviews of the procedures and practices that underpin your EMS

To ensure these are being carried out effectively, you must have commitment from your management team.

It's also sensible to incorporate your EMS into your other management processes, such as health and safety and quality control. It makes day-to-day management easier and helps communicate your policies to staff. See the page in this guide on how to integrate your EMS with other policies or systems.

Acting on the results

When you review your EMS, you'll probably uncover more effective ways to do things as a result. Make sure you communicate the results of the reviews to staff. As a minimum, you should provide them with updated documentation, but it's a good idea to run group training sessions or one-to-one meetings to ensure the changes and improvements are understood and acted upon.

Completing the cycle

Reviewing your EMS is something you should try to do on a regular basis. Once the review is complete and staff and systems have been updated, schedule the next major review well in advance to ensure the policy doesn't slip off the radar and lose effectiveness.

8. Certification and standards for EMS

While it isn't a legal requirement to get your environmental management system (EMS) independently certified, it can be a very good idea. Having an externally certified EMS shows you take your environmental performance seriously, and it can be a powerful marketing and sales tool.

Make sure you use an EMS certification body approved by the United Kingdom Accreditation Services (UKAS). There are organisations that appear to provide low cost certification. However using a UKAS accredited certification body will ensure that your customers fully recognise your certification. Find out about UKAS-accredited bodies on the UKAS website.

There are a number of environmental standards to which you can get certified.

ISO 14001

ISO 14001 is the internationally recognised standard for environmental management systems. Holding ISO 14001 can provide customers and suppliers with high-profile and respected assurance that you are managing your environmental responsibilities. Read about ISO 14001 on the ISO website


The Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) is a voluntary European scheme that provides external recognition for businesses that prove that they go further than just meeting regulatory requirements for environmental issues. To gain EMAS verification you must be able to prove that you have identified and are working with all relevant legislation and have systems in place to do so on an ongoing basis. You also have to prove that your system meets the ISO 14001 standard. It is possible to gain and maintain both ISO 14001 certification and EMAS verification at the same time.

Find out about EMAS on the European Commission website 

BS 8555

BS 8555 is a British standard that provides guidance for implementing an EMS on a phase-by-phase basis. It can be used as a stand alone EMS obtaining recognition at each phase of the standard or it can be a good way of working towards either ISO 14001 EMAS.

The 6 phases of BS 8555 are:

  1. commitment and establishing the baseline
  2. identifying and ensuring compliance with legal and other requirements
  3. developing objectives, targets and programmes
  4. implementation and operation of the EMS
  5. checking, auditing and review
  6. EMS acknowledgement

There are 3 schemes that you can follow to achieve BS8555:

Green Dragon

The Green Dragon Environmental Standard is a stepped approach to implementing a company Environmental Management System (EMS). It is also a good way of working towards certification for ISO 14001 and EMAS. An organisation, following assessment, will receive certification at each level of the standard. The 5 levels are:

Level 1 - Commitment to Environmental Management

Level 2 - Understanding Environmental Responsibilities

Level 3 - Managing Environmental Impacts

Level 4 - Environmental Management Programme

Level 5 - Continual Environmental Improvement

Green Dragon allows the implementation of an EMS appropriate to the size and nature of the organisation.

9. Integrate your EMS with other policies or systems

When you establish your environmental management system (EMS), it makes sense to consider how you can integrate it into your other systems, such as those dealing with health and safety and quality. For example, measures to control harmful emissions will be part of your day-to-day health and safety procedures and waste minimisation measures will form a part of quality control and operations policies.

Other areas where you may have policies or systems in place that could be integrated include sustainability, corporate social responsibility and biodiversity.

If you integrate the measures from your EMS into other policies and procedures, it will help staff to understand and work with them more easily. However, you need to be sure that the new requirements arising from the EMS are clearly communicated to ensure they are followed.

It's a good idea to hold some training and awareness exercises with revised documentation to make sure the message gets across.

If you intend to get your EMS certified, you will still need to manage it separately to ensure you can show you meet requirements specific to the EMS, but this distinction can be handled at a management level rather than risking confusion among staff by issuing another set of policies and procedures.

Passport scheme

You can also consider running a Passport scheme, which helps you run a combined health, safety and environment policy.

If you use a Passport scheme, each worker is issued with a passport that shows they have up-to-date training in specific health, safety and environment issues, agreed across industry sectors. These passports belong to the worker and can be transferred if they move to work for another business. You can also accept passports issued by other employers when taking on new employees.

If suitable, you can also use passports as a control device to ensure staff can only gain access to sites and areas where they have specific and relevant training.

Running a Passport scheme is also looked upon favourably by some certification bodies. Read guidance on running Passport schemes from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) website

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