Today, environmental management is an indispensable component of sustainable corporate development. Safeguarding the living space of present and future generations has become an overarching task. This development has found its way into the corporate policies of numerous companies. Accordingly, environmental protection is more than just compliance with binding obligations or the reduction of negative environmental impacts. Rather, the focus is on continuous improvement of the company's own environmental performance. This is a requirement that has been clearly emphasized in the ISO 14001:2015 standard compared to its predecessor version and requires key figures as proof.


A commitment of the company in the sense of ISO 14001

In order to improve the environmental performance of the organization, the internationally recognized environmental standard specifies ISO 14001 sets out three basic commitments for environmental policy in Chapter 5.2:

  • Protection of the environment
  • Fulfillment of all binding obligations, and
  • Continuous improvement of the environmental management system.

The binding obligations (compliance obligations) are derived from the context of the organization (chap. 4) and the requirements of the interested parties (chap. 4.2). They provide the framework for the environmentally relevant corporate processes (chap. 8), which are to be recorded and evaluated with regard to the environmental aspects (see chap. 6.1 "Risks and opportunities").

"According to ISO 14001:2015, the management of environmental aspects is referred to as environmental performance."

ISO 14001:2015, chap. 3.4.1

Measuring environmental performance - What does the standard require?

In chapter 9.1, the environmental standard requires the systematic monitoring, measurement, analysis and evaluation of the relevant environmental performance. In doing so, the company must define methods and performance indicators in a comprehensible manner.

The measurable performance indicators should be

  • Reliable
  • Verifiable
  • Reproducible
  • Consistent with the environmental policy

In order to focus the company's resources on the essential measurements, the key performance indicators should be identified in connection with the relevant environmental aspects and their environmental impact. In general, all performance indicators can be related to all conceivable organizational areas at almost any level of detail.

In practice, however, a meaningful restriction to significant environmental data is necessary, which should be oriented primarily to the following points:

  • On concrete goals
  • Relevance of the environmental topic
  • Possibilities for action of the associated business unit

It is important to always see the performance indicators in context so that they do not lose their meaning and significance.

"Environmental performance evaluation is an important instrument of strategic management: Careful analysis reveals not only environmental concerns, but equally business opportunities and potential for improvement."

Environmental performance - Tips for measuring

The ISO 14031 guide provides a comprehensive template for the sensible use of measurable performance indicators in environmental management. It is helpful to distinguish between three basic categories:

Management performance indicators

Management performance indicators map strategic environmental objectives and relate to information about management capabilities and activities that have or can have an impact on environmental performance. These metrics apply to higher-level areas such as allocation and efficient use of resources, product development, and employee training. They focus on compliance with binding commitments (legal and other obligations).

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Operational performance indicators

Steering and monitoring at the operational company level: These key performance indicators should be determined by listing and updating

  • The inputs, e.g. raw materials, materials, water, energy flows etc.
  • Operational processes and resources, and
  • The output, for example emissions, waste, wastewater, product and service

can be determined.

Environmental condition indicators

Key figures on the condition of air, water, soil, natural resources, flora, fauna and people that can be influenced by the company or that influence the company. For example, this could be information about the water quality of a nearby body of water or the air quality in the region. This information will help your company better understand its environmental impact.

Environmental indicators in practice

Monitoring and measuring metrics as part of the environmental management system should be done under controlled conditions and using appropriate processes to ensure valid results. For companies that want to delve deeper into the subject, a look at the ISO/TS 14033 standard "Quantitative environmental information" is also helpful.

The usefulness of a performance measurement system depends to a large extent on the quality of the data. As part of the continuous improvement process, the data must be reviewed regularly with a view to the corporate policy and the environmental goals derived from it. The reliability of key figures is determined by the quality of the basic data from measurements, calculations or from estimates.


Environmental performance - Continuous improvement

According to ISO 14001, evaluating compliance with environmentally relevant obligations is a continuous process. In regular management reviews (chap. 9.3), the company must review its environmental performance with regard to the binding obligations and evaluate the effectiveness of the environmental management system. This results in starting points for the continuous improvement of environmental performance (chap. 10).

In documenting the results, the main focus is on the realization of environmental performance. The findings from the evaluation of the data obtained must be communicated internally and externally: according to the communication process and including the binding commitments (chap. 7.4).

Communication about environmental impacts and environmental performance has become an important task for companies. The reasons for this are increasing public interest and the requirement to listen to the needs and expectations of interested parties and to include them as part of environmental communication.

Top management must assign responsibilities and authorities (section 5.3) for reporting environmental performance. The information on environmental performance should be valid and its presentation should take into account the technical knowledge and language used by interested parties.

In addition, the company shall integrate impacts and measures to improve environmental performance into other business processes in accordance with chapter 6.1.4, such as the procurement of products containing hazardous substances.


Environmental performance - What does the ISO 14001 standard require? Conclusion.

The evaluation and continuous improvement of a company's own environmental performance is an important instrument of strategic management: Careful consideration reveals not only environmental concerns, but also business opportunities and potential for improvement.

The measurement of the environmental performance of environmental targets must take place on the basis of performance indicators to be defined. In this context, the key performance indicators for environmental performance evaluation must be reliable, reproducible and traceable. The relevant findings from the evaluation of the data obtained must be communicated internally and externally in accordance with the communication rules, including the binding commitments.


Recommended: Other helpful environmental standards


  • ISO 14005:2019 Environmental management systems - Guidelines for a flexible approach to phased implementation
  • ISO 14031:2021 Environmental management - Environmental performance evaluation - Guidelines
  • ISO/TS 14033:2019 Environmental management - Quantitative environmental information - Guidelines and examples

ISO 14001 - What is it about?

The environmental management standard ISO 14001 first appeared in 1996, and the current version was published in September 2015 as ISO 14001:2015 following a comprehensive revision. Compared to the last version, a number of environment-specific innovations have been introduced in addition to the requirements resulting from the new common basic structure for ISO management system standards (High Level Structure).

These include such essential aspects as the measurement of environmental performance, the integration of life cycle thinking, the increasingly risk-based approach, compliance with binding commitments with regard to relevant interested parties - and, last but not least, the achievement of self-set environmental targets.

Companies that follow the requirements of the ISO standard therefore act responsibly in all respects: they keep an eye on significant environmental aspects, help to protect the environment, and at the same time achieve a high degree of legal certainty.


Benefits of ISO 14001 certification

In addition to the continuous improvement of the company's environmental performance, a number of other benefits accompany the implementation of an environmental management system:

  • Risk prevention through systematic consideration of risks and opportunities and forward-looking thinking and action
  • Greater public confidence through demonstrably sustainable business practices
  • Better understanding of the requirements of relevant interested parties, including employees
  • Internationally recognized proof of your responsible actions
  • Increased legal certainty and reduction of environmental risks
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ISO 14001 certification

How much effort do you have to expect to have your environmental management system certified according to ISO 14001? Find out free of charge and without obligation.

With an accredited ISO 14001 certificate you show your customers, partners and the interested public that you
- Bear responsibility for the environment and
- Align all company activities to avoid environmental pollution.

Expertise and trust

Please note: Our articles are written exclusively by our in-house experts for management systems and long-standing auditors. If you have any questions for our authors about the content, please contact us. We look forward to speaking with you.

Eric Werner-Korall

Compliance and risk management expert with over 20 years of international experience as a DQS auditor for integrated management systems. With a doctorate in engineering, he also contributes his expertise as a trainer and lecturer, presenter and author of numerous technical papers.