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On the road to sustainability - Environment, economy, society

by Roger Frost on
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Environment

ISO’s current portfolio of nearly 19 000 standards provides solutions in all three dimensions of sustainable development – environmental, economic and societal. Here are some examples of achievements by the international community, represented at Rio+20, working within the ISO system. The examples illustrate how ISO standards serve as tools in the three dimensions of sustainable development.

Environment

Environmental management

One of the concrete results following on from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, in Rio de Janeiro, in 1992, was the development by ISO of the ISO 14000 family of standards for environmental management which translates into action ISO’s commitment to support the objective of sustainable development discussed at the first Earth Summit.

In essence, the ISO 14000 family provides a framework for organizations large and small, in manufacturing and services, in public and private sectors, in industrialized, developing and transition economies, to :

  • Minimize harmful effects on the environment caused by their activities
  • Meet regulatory requirements
  • Achieve continual improvement of their environmental performance
  • Improve business performance through more efficient use of resources.

Has the ISO 14000 family actually made a difference ? The increasing number of users is an important element in the answer. At the end of December 2010, 14 years after publication of the first edition of ISO 14001, which gives the requirements for environmental management systems, the standard was being implemented by users in 155 countries and economies. These include both public and private sector organizations, large and small, in manufacturing and services, in developed and developing economies.

In addition to ISO 14001, the ISO 14000 family includes 25 other standards addressing specific challenges such as lifecycle analysis, environmental labelling and greenhouse gases (see next section).

Climate change

The ISO 14064:2006 series and the ISO 14065:2007 standard provide an internationally agreed framework for measuring greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and verifying claims made about them so that “a tonne of carbon is always a tonne of carbon”. They support programmes to reduce GHG emissions as well as emissions trading programmes.

Beyond their welcome by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, they are now being implemented on a day-today basis by users as varied as a New Zealand printer, a Norwegian shipping company, an Indian construction company and the Spanish organization that is one of the world’s largest transport infrastructure providers. ISO and the environment

The ISO 14000 family is the most visible part of ISO’s work for the environment. In addition, however, ISO offers a wide-ranging portfolio of standardized sampling, testing and analytical methods to deal with specific environmental challenges. It has developed more than 650 International Standards for the monitoring of aspects such as the quality of air, water, soil and nuclear radiation. These standards are tools for providing business and government with scientifically valid data on the environmental effects of economic activity. They may also be used as the technical basis for environmental regulations. Other environment related work includes standards for designing buildings, or retrofitting existing ones, for improved energy efficiency.

Economy

ISO standards provide solutions and achieve benefits for almost all sectors of activity, including agriculture, construction, mechanical engineering, manufacturing, distribution, transport, healthcare, information and communication technologies, food, water, the environment, energy, quality management, conformity assessment and services.

Efficiency, effectiveness, innovation

These standards contribute to sustainable economic development by increasing efficiency, effectiveness and, therefore, conserving resources. They keep the wheels of industry turning by providing specifications, dimensions, requirements and testing and maintenance regimes for engineering, construction, production and distribution.

They ensure compatibility and interoperability of the information and communications technologies that have become the backbone of almost every sector.

They speed up the time to market and diffusion of products and services derived from innovation, such as nanotechnologies and vehicles powered by electrical batteries or hydrogen. They facilitate trade, providing a basis for agreement between business partners and the technical support for regulation.

Economic benefits

Several studies have found that the economic benefits of standardization represent about 1 % of gross domestic product. This shows that standards make an annual contribution of GBP 2.5 billion to the economy, and attribute 13 % of the growth in labour productivity. Standards and related conformity assessment (checking that products and services measure up to standards) have an impact on 80 % of the world’s trade in commodities.

Management standards

ISO 14001, referred to above, is a management system standard like the pioneer in this field, ISO 9001 for quality management. These are among ISO’s best-known standards and are thoroughly integrated into the global economy. At the end of 2010, there were more than a million users of ISO 9001 alone in 178 countries. Beyond their immediate objectives of helping organizations large and small to improve, respectively, environmental and quality management performance, they are widely used to establish confidence between business partners, as a condition to participate in global supply chains and qualify to tender for procurement contracts.

The management system approach pioneered by ISO 9001 and further developed by ISO 14001 has since been followed by other standards for the needs of specific sectors, or to address specific issues.

They include :

  • Information security (ISO/IEC 27001)
  • Food safety (ISO 22000)
  • Supply chain security (ISO 28000)
  • Energy management (ISO 50001)
  • Road traffic safety management (ISO 39001 – under development).

Although the ISO 31000 standard for risk management is not a management system standard, it shares with this category the attribute of being generic, providing benefits for any organization in the public or private sector. These benefits may be economic, environmental or societal, making it an important tool for sustainability.

Society

ISO standards help governments, civil society and the business world translate societal aspirations, such as for social responsibility, health, and safe food and water, into concrete realizations. In so doing, they support the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.

Social responsibility

children1 November 2010 saw the publication of ISO 26000 which gives organizations guidance on social responsibility, with the objective of sustainability. The standard was eagerly awaited, as shown by the fact that a mere four months after its publication, a Google search resulted in nearly five million references to the standard.

This indicates there is a global expectation for organizations in both public and private sectors to be responsible for their actions, to be transparent, and behave in an ethical manner. ISO 26000, developed with the engagement of experts from 99 countries, the majority from developing economies, and more than 40 international organizations, will help move from good intentions about social responsibility to effective action.

Health

ISO offers more than 1 400 standards for facilitating and improving health-care. These are developed within 19 ISO technical committees addressing specific aspects of healthcare that bring together health practitioners and experts from government, industry and other stakeholder categories. Some of the topics addressed include health informatics, laboratory equipment and testing, medical devices and their evaluation, dentistry, sterilization of healthcare products, implants for surgery, biological evaluation, mechanical contraceptives, prosthetics and orthotics, quality management and protecting patient data.

They provide benefits for researchers, manufacturers, regulators, health-care professionals, and, most important of all, for patients. The World Health Organization is a major stakeholder in this work, holding liaison status with 61 of ISO’s health-related technical committees (TCs) or subcommittees (SCs).

Food

There are some 1 000 ISO food-related standards benefitting producers and manufacturers, regulators and testing laboratories, packaging and transport companies, merchants and retailers, and the end consumer. In recent years, there has been strong emphasis on standards to ensure safe food supply chains. At the end of 2010, five years after the publication of ISO 22000, the standard was being implemented by users in 138 countries.

At least 18 630 certificates of conformity attesting that food safety management systems were being implemented according to the requirements of the standard, had been issued by the end of 2010, an increase of 34 % over the previous year.

The level of inter-governmental interest in ISO’s food standards is shown by the fact that the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organizations has liaison status with 41 ISO TCs or SCs.

Water

The goals of safe water and improved sanitation are ingrained in the UN Millennium Development Goals. ISO is contributing through the development of standards for both drinking water and wastewater services and for water quality. Related areas addressed by ISO include irrigation systems and plastic piping through which water flows.

In all, ISO has developed more than 550 water-related standards. A major partner in standards for water quality is the United Nations Environment Programme.