The environmental management standard ISO 14001 gives firms the freedom to set the environmental impact reduction targets they see more fit, only requiring that firms document the environmental impacts of their operations and comply with existing regulations.
This has lead critics to view ISO14001 certification as greenwashing, that is, as a way to improve the public image of the firm without significantly reducing its environmental impacts.
Is ISO14001 certification a form of greenwashing? An answer can come from research on whether the adoption of ISO 14001 certification positively affect firms’ environmental performance. A recent study by Philippe Barla suggests it doesn’t. Barla examines the environmental impact of the adoption of ISO 14001 in the Quebec’s pulp and paper industry by analyzing monthly data from 37 plants for the period 1997- 2003 and finds that :
“While BOD emissions slightly decline following certification, we do not find any significant change in TSS emissions or in the quantity of rejected process water. We also find that over time, non-adopting plants experienced more significant emission reductions than plants that eventually adopt ISO. Moreover, the impacts of ISO are very variable across plants. If a few plants considerably reduce emissions following certification, a majority of adopters either maintain or even increase emissions after being accredited.” (Barla 2007, 305.)
Other research, however, yields opposite results. Potoski and Prakash (2005) for instance write:
“ Our analysis of over 3,000 facilities regulated as major sources under the U.S. Clean Air Act suggests that ISO 14001-certified facilities reduce their pollution emissions more than non-certified facilities. This result persists even after controlling for facilities’ emission and regulatory compliance histories as well as addressing potential endogeneity issues between facilities’ environmental performance and their decisions to join ISO 14001.”
More research is needed before we can assess with some confidence of the possible environmental benefits of ISO14001 certification. In the meantime, we suspend judgement.
Barla. Philippe (2007) ISO 14001 certification and environmental performance in Quebec’s pulp and paper industry , Journal of Environmental Economics and Manangement, volume 53, Issue 3, May 2007, pp. 291-306.
Here is the abstract
Download an earlier version from IDEAS.
Potoski, Matthew and Prakash, Aseem (2005) Covenants with weak swords: ISO 14001 and facilities’ environmental performance,
Journal of Policy Analysis and Management
Volume 24, Issue 4, Autumn 2005, pp. 745-769
Here is the abstract