Linking Sustainability and Environmental Management Systems

Laura Sykes | February-13-13


Guest Post: by Sandra Tavares, B.Sc., M.Sc., EP(EMSLA)
Principal of Tavares Group Consulting Inc.
London, Ontario

The Importance of Sustainability

Organizations are recognizing the prevalence of sustainability and are increasingly incorporating socially responsible practices throughout their operations. Sustainability is relevant to organizations of any type (for profit, non-profit, government), any size, and any sector of the economy. Sustainability is often linked to exceptional environmental performance, but it involves much more. Organizations that implement sustainability are more efficient and are well-positioned to address the various challenges and demands of a changing economy. They contribute to the social, environmental and economic well-being of their communities and beyond.

But how did they get there? 

For organizations that want to begin incorporating sustainability into their operations, it is difficult to know where or how to begin. Often there is an individual, event, or stakeholder demand that serves as the catalyst to introduce the need for sustainability in an organization. Some organisations have had a leader or ‘visionary’ who recognized that sustainability makes good business sense. Others may have turned to sustainability following a major human rights or environmental infraction-turned-scandal. And a growing number of powerful companies are following Wal-Mart’s example by imposing sustainability reporting programs on their supply chains. If your organization or clients have not experienced a catalyst for sustainability implementation yet, I am confident that you soon will.

Key Considerations 

When implementing sustainability in an organization, there are four key considerations (based on the ISO 26000 Social Responsibility guidelines) that should be addressed:
  1. Environment
  2. Labour and operating practices
  3. Products and services
  4. Community 
Impacts to these key considerations must be considered at each stage of an operation, much like environmental aspects are assessed for significance when implementing an environmental management system.
Environmental impacts include waste generation and diversion, energy usage, greenhouse gas emissions, and resource efficiency, amongst others. Organizations will improve their bottom line by minimizing their environmental impact in these areas. Waste, water, or energy audits can identify these opportunities for substantial cost savings.
Labour and operating practices are impacted by the presence or absence of health and safety or industrial hygiene programs, good working conditions (breaks, vacation, competitive wages, etc.), human and cultural rights, and employee retention programs.
With products and services, it is important to analyze and understand the entire life cycle of products. The recommended approach is ‘cradle-to-cradle’, where products are designed such that at the end of life, they can be used as an input to creating new products. Other considerations include developing products that minimize potential harm to consumers and the environment. 
In terms of community, participation is important. The community’s key considerations can be addressed through involvement in local associations or industry groups, revising your procurement policy to emphasize sourcing of local materials, encouraging employees to volunteer, or engaging in partnerships with charities, other businesses, or educational institutions. Your brand only stands to benefit!

The 'Plan-Do-Check-Act' Approach

Addressing these key considerations from a process-based perspective can be achieved using the 'Plan-Do-Check-Act' approach:
  • Plan: evaluation and prioritization of the risks associated with the key considerations to allow for development of objectives for performance improvement; 
  • Do:  development of processes and procedures; 
  • Check: monitoring of objectives and key performance indicators as well as auditing of the processes put in place to make sure internal requirements are met; 
  • Act: review of the processes/systems to make sure continual improvement can take place.


Five Sustainability Principles

Implementation of sustainability in an organization should also follow the five sustainability principles (based on the ISO 26000 Social Responsibility guidelines) listed below. These principles should be followed when any sustainability action is implemented for any of the key considerations:

  1. Accountability – be answerable for decisions and activities.
  2. Transparency – be open and willing to communicate about key considerations; have information readily available.
  3. Ethical behaviour – be honest, equitable and demonstrate integrity.
  4. Stakeholder interests – address interests of customers, investors, employees, and others. Demonstrate regard for stakeholder interests, legal rights and respond to expressed concerns.
  5. Compliance – meet all regulatory requirements, including environmental, health and safety, fiscal, security and personal privacy.
Environmental management systems already address some of these principles. Accountability and transparency, for example, are addressed throughout the ISO 14001 standard via documentation requirements and in such areas as training, emergency preparedness and response, etc. ISO14001 requires organizations to identify all applicable as well as any new and proposed environmental legislation; there is also a requirement to evaluate the status of compliance. These processes can certainly be extended to other issues such as health and safety, human rights, security, etc.
It is clear that there is a lot to consider when embedding sustainability into an organization. Utilizing existing management systems is an effective tool for managing such a wide-ranging number of initiatives.


  • ISO 14001:2004 Environmental Management Systems
  • ISO 26000:2010 Guidance on Social Responsibility
Questions or comments? You can email Sandra at or visit