Compliance obligations to interested parties is one of the core topics in ISO 14001, requiring the organization to identify risks and opportunities related to environmental aspects, applicable legal obligations and voluntarily accepted obligations. Taking into account the responsibility of the top management for the overall process of effective implementation and continuation of the organization-related environmental management, the issue of effective transfer of obligations also becomes the focus of practical implementation requirements.


Binding commitments in ISO 14001 - What does the standard require?

Binding commitments of an organization include legal and other commitments according to the ISO 14001 standard chapter 6.1.3. There is no hierarchy between legal and other self-imposed obligations.

"The term "binding obligations" replaces, with the same meaning, the term "legal obligations and other requirements to which the organization has committed itself."

The basis for identifying binding commitments is an understanding of the organization and its context (ISO 14001, Chapter 4). To do this, the organization must first define external and internal issues that are relevant to the organization's purpose. Following this, the interested parties with their specific relevant needs and expectations (i.e., requirements) for the environmental management system must be determined. Based on this, the binding obligations applicable to the company result from these requirements and expectations.

ISO 14001 - Sustainable environmental management

Certified environmental management system in accordance with recognized standard ★ Increase environmental performance and minimize risks Responsible and sustainable management ★

Thus, the following question arises first: What are the binding effects for whom and what is the content of the respective obligation?

Within the framework of a consideration of risks and opportunities - also an aspect of ISO 14001 - it must be determined which opportunities arise from the fulfillment of binding obligations and which risks arise from their non-fulfillment.

ISO 14001 - Legal and other binding obligations

Binding obligations arise fundamentally from the trinity of written, spoken and created law, as well as from the legal fields of criminal law and public law. Examples given apply to Germany.

Written law

The following can be assigned to written law, arranged in order of priority: the organizationally relevant areas of European law (directives and legal ordinances), federal law and state law, each subdivided into laws, ordinances and administrative regulations, municipal statute law and other sets of rules such as DIN regulations. In practice, many companies do not pay due attention to the area of municipal statute law. This includes, for example, waste statutes, wastewater statutes, development plans and the like.

Spoken law

Spoken law includes final court decisions. Here, however, the direct binding effect for the company is only given if it was a party (plaintiff or defendant) in the proceedings. Otherwise, even court decisions of the highest instances (e.g. Federal Court of Justice, Federal Labor Court, Federal Fiscal Court) have no general binding effect due to the constitutionally guaranteed independence of the judiciary.

Created law

Private contract law

For organizational practice and to ensure legal compliance, however, it is useful to know about the leading decisions of the highest courts. While the aforementioned contents are clear to everyone, this is often not the case in the area of created law. First of all, the highly relevant aspect of contract law for any company with an operational business must be understood here.

"Be it the customer relationship, the supplier relationship, the employment contract or the lease agreement for buildings and machinery: contracts are concluded, fulfilled and terminated every day."

In principle, these contracts are also based on law - the German Civil Code (BGB) applies here. However, each contracting party can determine the selection of the contracting party itself. The decision with whom I would like to conclude a contract and with whom perhaps not, can be determined by each contracting party. The same applies to the concrete contents of the contract.

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In this respect, contract law also has a certain voluntary effect, but this becomes binding once the contract has been concluded. The binding effect occurs, unlike with the law, only between the respective contracting parties. In the case of the law or similar, the party that falls under the respective scope of application is bound by the law and must fulfill the obligations therein, for example, plant operators or waste producers.

Individual decisions by public authorities (administrative acts, etc.)

In addition to this more private law component, there is also a binding effect in the area of public law / administrative law, which is also based on a law or similar, but similar to a contract, only has a limited binding effect - in this case towards the addressee. This refers to the administrative act.

In Germany, for example, according to the Administrative Procedure Act (VwVfG), this is a regulation in the field of public law in an individual case with external effect. Every official approval, subsequent order and every fee notice is such an administrative act. Here, too, there is a certain voluntary component (after all, I don't have to build a house or want to erect a plant requiring a permit), but this is irrelevant in the context of the concepts of ISO 14001.

Voluntary commitments

Unlike binding commitments, the binding effect here arises on the basis of voluntary decisions by the company in question. For example, a published sustainability report can have such a binding effect if the company has committed itself to certain measures, behavior or similar vis-à-vis interested parties.

This commitment can be revoked by the company at any time. With regard to ISO 14001, such binding obligations can also arise from social and ethical standards. Therefore, in practical implementation, every company should ask itself in this respect whether its current business conduct is legal, but possibly not necessarily legitimate.

What does "mandatory" mean?

The addressee of the duties is usually described rather abstractly in laws, regulations, etc.: for example, the operator, the waste producer or the water user. However, there is often a legally binding obligation in the relevant specialist legislation for the top management to inform the authority who specifically bears personal responsibility and how it is ensured that these obligations are also fulfilled (e.g. in Germany that is § 52b BImSchG - notification of company organization). In the case of court decisions, administrative acts and contracts, it is regularly clear to whom specifically the regulation is directed.

Measures for dealing with risks and opportunities

From the assignment of this sub-item in Chapter 6 "Planning" of ISO 14001, which also includes sub-items 6.1.3 "Binding commitments" and 6.1.2 "Environmental aspects", it is clear that all three aspects must be related to each other.

ISO 14001 - Certified environmental management system

Doing business economically while protecting the environment? No balancing act with an environmental management system in accordance with the well-known ISO 14001 standard.

Already during the identification of significant environmental aspects, an actual risk assessment and thus the decision as to whether it is a significant environmental aspect in the sense of ISO 14001 can only be made with the decisive inclusion of the obligations and legal consequences arising from binding commitments. The higher the accumulation of obligations, the greater the risks of the occurrence of undesirable legal consequences and thus the greater the significance of the environmental aspect.

ISO 14001:2015 - Environmental management systems - Requirements with guidance for use.
The standard is available from the ISO website.

The role of interested parties

Risk assessments by interested parties should also be included in a provable manner. Otherwise, there is a risk of overestimating or underestimating risks and thus incorrectly assessing the importance of one or more environmental aspects. Examples include:

  • Results of an environmental impact assessment
  • Designation of protected areas by authorities
  • Official publications in the pollutant release register

However, a realistic evaluation of opportunities is also not possible without including the binding obligations according to the environmental standard ISO 14001.

For example, the voluntary implementation of a formal approval procedure involving the public and thus, among others, local residents and nature conservation associations as well as other interested parties, can lead significantly to long-term confidence-building measures and thus to the prevention of possible conflict potential. The approval obtained in this way (an administrative act, see above) then also has certain binding effects on the public involved and creates long-term security for the company.

Practical advice from a German point of view
It is absolutely advisable to document all the main and ancillary provisions of a permit, as well as the derivation of measures and the transfer of duties. And: to have an effective monitoring process with regard to constant up-to-dateness. This is all the more important because the responsible authorities can regularly issue subsequent orders regarding a permit even without an application, for example § 17 BImSchG. In the case of certain facilities, an official legal compliance audit is sometimes conducted annually. whether the operator is complying with its permit obligations, e.g., § 52a BImSchG or the corresponding regulations in the EC Waste Shipment Regulation. When assessing compliance with obligations, their frequency, and what measures have been derived from them, must be documented.

Conclusion: Binding commitments in ISO 14001

Due to the cross-cutting nature of the legality obligations in the field of environmental and climate protection, the requirements to be fulfilled by each organization, both in the field of ISO certification, the fulfillment of management requirements from the respective legislator, should not be underestimated.

However, solid knowledge of the organization in this field is at the same time a guarantee of using existing opportunities.

Effective environmental management systems enable companies to improve operational environmental protection on their own responsibility and on a continuous basis. Risk prevention, compliance with laws and regulations, and increased environmental awareness among employees are further aspects that lead to competitive advantages and contribute to securing the future.
With an ISO 14001 certificate you show your customers, partners and the interested public that you take responsibility for the environment and continuously improve your environmental performance .

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Frank Machalz is a member of the DIN Standards Committee on Organizational Processes (NA Org) NA 175 -00 -01 AA Governance and Compliance Management. For several years, he has been actively involved in the development of the ISO 37301 standard as well as ISO 37000 and DIN ISO 37002. In addition, he also contributes his expertise and experience to the standards committee Quality Management, Statistics and Certification Fundamentals (NQSZ) NA 147-00-03-21 and will actively participate here in the development of the future ISO 17021-13.