There are no existing requirements to understand the organization’s environmental context; however some organizations may do this – to a greater or lesser extent – when developing environmental policy (4.2), identifying environmental aspects (4.3.1), and carrying out management review (4.6).
New Draft Requirements (DIS)
4.1 Understanding the organization and its context
This is a new requirement to “determine external and internal issues that are relevant to its purpose and that affect its ability to achieve the intended outcome(s) of its environmental management system. Those issues include environmental conditions capable of affecting or being affected by the organization.”
Internal issues that may affect the success of the EMS will be familiar to most Environmental Managers! These may include conflicting organizational goals and policies; rapid change; and limited human, technical and financial resources. Various examples are given in Annex A of the DIS.
External issues that may affect the outcomes of the environmental management system include changing regulations and regulators; new innovation and technology — potentially leading to better pollution controls; and economic factors, such as the last recession, that restricted investment and changed consumer behaviour.
It is important not to miss that this this clause also requires the organisation to consider how environmental conditions may affect the organization (not just the EMS). This is a more strategic consideration, and is linked to business planning and contingency planning.
Increasingly, external environmental factors such as population, climate change, and resource scarcity are presenting threats (and sometimes opportunities) to organizations. For example, ASDA have identified climate change as a key issue for their business: they recently reported that 95% of their fresh produce range is at risk from climate change1.
A variety of techniques may be used to gain an understanding of the organization and its context, such as PESTLE analysis, back-casting, and competitor analysis2. A good question to ask is: “if we continue doing what we do today, will we still be a viable business in 20 years?” On a practical level, ‘Context analysis’ may be incorporated into the strategic business planning processes, or into environmental management review meetings. To do this well, I recommend that a range of senior personnel are involved. They should have a good knowledge of where the organization is heading, how it is structured, as well an understanding of macro-environmental issues.
I recommend two books for non-specialists in this regard: ‘The God Species’ by Mark Lynas3, and, for organizations with land-based issues, ‘What has nature ever done for us’ by Tony Juniper4. In the God Species, Lynas explores the work of Professor Johan Rockström, and others, in defining thresholds for nine global planetary boundaries5. If we cross these boundaries we risk triggering non-linear, abrupt environmental change. The research concludes that humans have already crossed thresholds for three of the nine boundaries. However, this does not necessarily mean limiting growth, but setting out a safe environmental operating space within with growth can be sustained. Lynas says: “Nature no longer runs the Earth. We do. It is our choice what happens from here.”
Your organisation, large or small, operates within the confines of one planet. And your success, or otherwise, is intrinsically linked to the ongoing provisioning and support services, and natural capital, provided by the planet’s systems. In England, for example, the status, and value, of natural capital is assessed, and reported, by the Natural Capital committee.
References, tools & techniques
1. ASDA, 2013: ‘The challenge of a changing climate’,
2. Various business tools and techniques:
- PESTLE analysis
- SWOT analysis
- Considering externalities
- Competitor analysis
3. M. Lynas, 2011: ‘The God species’ Fourth Estate
4. T. Juniper, 2013: ‘What has nature every done for us?’, Profile Books
5. J. Rockström et al, 2009: ‘A safety operating space for humanity’, Nature, 461, 472-5.
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