What's an EMS? (Hint: It's Not Just Another Layer of Bureaucracy.)
When a business or a branch of government genuinely commits to an Environmental Management System, it is in fact disposing of a decades-old model and replacing it with a visionary structure—one that flips accepted environmental coping strategies on their heads. Why? Because the EMS turns every clerk, mechanic, mid-level bureaucrat, department head, CEO and city manager into an environmental steward. An EMS makes the environment everyone's responsibility.
Officially, the EMS is known in rather uninspired language as a management system. It requires that participants evaluate their organization's risks, develop a thoughtful plan for improvements, put these strategies into action, and then, after some time has passed, evaluate what's been successful and what needs improvement or rethinking. It sounds dull, bureaucratic and ordinary. Here's why it's not:
Throughout these several decades since the first Earth Day in 1970, when "the environment" popped up permanently on society's radar screen, many cities, profit-making companies, port districts and others that suddenly found themselves forced to deal with environmental issues responded quite typically and responsibly: They appointed an environmental compliance officer (or created an entire environmental department) and made these people deal with any spills, lawsuits, protests or other problems.
Generally this worked okay. While a few compliance departments were little more than cynical public relations ploys, most did their jobs with earnest commitment. However, whatever their purpose or impact, all came to be seen as necessary costs of doing business, line items in budgets that cut into corporate profits or ate up tax dollars.
The EMS is quite the opposite. No longer must a business choose to sacrifice the environment in order to maximize profits; or do right by the air, water and wildlife at the expense of its bottom line. And, because Environmental Management Systems work as effectively for government entities as they do for private enterprise, cities such as Dallas can treat the environment with respect—and likely spend less public money at the same time.
One key to the system is its broad-based approach to environmental solutions: Instead of depending on some compliance officer, or even an entire environmental compliance department, the EMS bestows responsibility for the environment upon everyone in the organization, from the newest hire, to all of senior management.
"It's revolutionary," says Mary Suhm, Dallas City Manager. "Our EMS will save citizens' money as it also saves our environment."
The City's EMS is based on an international specification called ISO 14001. This is a universal standard that is administered by the International Organization for Standardization. ISO 14001 is a simple document, a template that lays out, in about six pages, the framework for an effective EMS. When Dallas, or any organization, creates its EMS, it uses the same template employed universally around the world. ISO 14001 consists of five simple-to-follow parts: Policy Development, Planning, Doing, Checking, and Management Review. Together, these comprise a cycle of action known as continuous improvement.
- Policy development simply means creating an environmental policy and making it public. Implicit in this first step is the commitment to continuous improvement, to the prevention of pollution and to compliance with all environmental regulations—at a minimum. Once an organization adopts a comprehensive policy, it makes sure everyone on staff (or companies working for the organization) knows this document exists, what it contains, and how the organization intends to act.
- Planning. The overall goal of EMS planning is to set objectives and targets for improving environmental performance. The City does this by analyzing all of the possible impacts City operations could have on the environment and then selecting the highest priority items to focus on. An objective, for example, might be reducing air emissions; a target (something that can be quantified and measured) would be to reduce these emissions by, say, 10 percent per year. Along with this comes a commitment from City management to provide the resources necessary to achieve these objectives and targets.
- Doing. Now comes the implementation phase. First, someone is appointed to manage the EMS (in the City's case, it's the director of the Office of Environmental Quality). This manager and others create a structure, which becomes the mechanism for telling employees citywide about the EMS, helping them understand that their jobs have impacts on the environment, and then helping them implement EMS procedures and goals in their various workplaces. This "doing" phase also includes communicating EMS goals to the community at large, having clearly written policies, procedures and records, and finally developing procedures for any emergencies that may occur: spills, emissions, accidents and such.
- Checking. From time to time, the City will measure how successfully it is achieving its environmental objectives. Trained EMS auditors will routinely check the EMS to ensure that procedures are being followed and goals met. They will bring discrepancies to appropriate managers and employees. The idea here is not to punish, but to correct any problems and continually improve operations (a process of perpetual learning). It also recognizes good performance and anticipates problems before they occur.
- Acting. There is a formal annual review of the EMS by senior management. The process depends on managers asking key questions: Are we meeting our objectives and targets? Are we saving money? What changes seem necessary to help the EMS function better? They may decide that changes to the EMS need to be made and "Act" to make improvements. These questions bring the entire process back again to the planning phase, and the cycle begins anew.
"All this might sound complicated," says Jill Jordan, an assistant city manager. "But details aside, the EMS is really about managing and inspiring our employees so that the city and the environment both benefit."
The concept of an EMS is relatively new, yet many who work with them regularly insist they are a visionary movement, recognized by environmental activists as well as private entrepreneurs as a way to forge win-win-win-scenarios that improve the environment, increase profits for business, and save tax dollars for governments as well as lessen the burdens of regulatory oversight