The field of environmental management has changed rapidly in the last 20 years. Not only do you have to keep up with ever-changing regulations, but you're also responsible for making sure your facility is producing optimally while staying under limits.
An environmental management system can help you standardize your regulatory compliance and strategically improve your environmental performance.
This page is an overview of environmental management systems. Read along, download it for later, or jump to a section.
Table of Contents:
- What is an environmental management system (EMS)?
- What is the purpose of an environmental management system?
- Do you need an environmental management system?
- Benefits of an EMS
- Environmental management system standards
- PCDA model
- Tips for implementing an EMS
- What is environmental management systems software?
- Common environmental management system misconceptions
- Why do you need environmental management software?
- What should I look for in environmental management software?
(If you want to learn more about our environmental software solutions, visit our environmental management system software page.)
What is an environmental management system?
An environmental management system is a framework of processes, procedures, and resources that enable an organization to achieve its environmental performance objectives.
An environmental management system is known by many names — EMS, environmental management information system, or regulatory compliance system, to name a few. Whatever you call it, the concept of environmental management systems trips a lot of people up — even those who work in EHS. That's because it can have multiple meanings depending on the situation and who is talking about it.
An EMS can refer to a set of processes for managing a business' environmental impact. Or, it can refer to the software system or database used to manage those processes. To make matters more confusing, the term is often used interchangeably to refer to both processes and software!
Most of the time when someone is talking about an environmental management system, they’re talking about a set of processes governed by a standard such as ISO 14001. We'll talk more about ISO 14001 and other environmental management system standards in a moment, but first, let's talk about why an EMS exists in the first place.
What is the purpose of an environmental management system?
The purpose of an environmental management system is to provide a structured approach to controlling an organization's environmental impact.
This typically includes air, GHG, water, and waste management. Increasingly, climate risk management is included in environmental management systems.
In the same way that a safety management system helps manage safety risks, an environmental management system offers a systematic way to address environmental risks and opportunities.
In addition to managing environmental aspects, an EMS should also help you keep up with changing regulations and standardize environmental compliance. Read on to learn who should consider an environmental management system, and how it can help you.
Do you need an environmental management system?
There are many reasons an organization might implement an environmental management system. In some cases, an EMS might be required after a violation or non-conformance. Sometimes it's stipulated as part of a contract. Or, it can be part of a voluntary environmental program.
The questions below will help you determine if an environmental management system is right for you:
- Are you required to comply with federal, state, local, or contractual environmental regulations?
- Is improving environmental performance a goal of your organization?
- Are you short on time and resources to keep up with your environmental responsibilities?
- Do you experience problems like missed deadlines, expired permits, and untrained staff?
- Do you struggle with reporting on your environmental performance?
- Does your company have ESG initiatives?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, an environmental management system can help.
Benefits of an environmental management system (EMS)
The importance of environmental management can't be overstated. Here are just a few of the benefits of having an EMS:
- Improve environmental performance: An EMS can help identify the root cause of violations or non-conformance and identify ways to improve. Improving metrics like water usage or electricity consumption can help you ensure your operations are performing optimally.
- Save money: The costs of not having an EMS are staggering. At best, companies without a formal EMS waste time and resources reacting to regulatory changes. At worst, you risk costly fines and permanent damage to your reputation.
- Engage employees: Having a structured environmental management system in place allows you to involve staff across your organization in environmental monitoring and compliance. An EMS also makes it easier to train new hires, since you'll already have formal procedures in place.
- Boost corporate image: Today's consumers expect corporations to be good stewards of the environment. An environmental management system is one way to demonstrate and report on your organization's environmental performance.
- Meet investor demands: Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues can have a significant impact on a business' financial metrics and, in turn, on investors' own financial risk profile. As investors clamor for transparency and ESG disclosure becomes a mainstream requirement for publicly traded companies, and EMS can help you meet the demand for more sustainable business practices.
Environmental management system standards
As we mentioned before, environmental management systems can look dramatically different from one organization to the next.
There's no one-size-fits all solution when it comes to improving your environmental performance. However, there are several environmental management system standards that can guide you as you decide how to structure your EMS.
ISO 14001 is an international standard that outlines requirements for an environmental management system. It provides businesses with a framework to continually improve their environmental performance in order to cut costs, reduce waste, and show management and stakeholders that they are growing sustainably. It's one of the most popular environmental management standards, with over 346,000 companies certified worldwide and thousands more who use it.
>>> To learn more about the ISO 14001 standard, visit our page on ISO 14001 Environmental Management.
While ISO 9001 is not specifically an environmental management system standard, it can help organizations improve their environmental performance. The standard provides businesses with a framework to develop a quality management system to satisfy customer requirements, comply with regulations, and meet environmental objectives. The standard is used in 81 countries worldwide, with over 13,000 registered companies in North America.
In addition to the ISO family of international standards, many countries or private organizations have their own environmental management standards. A few of these are:
BS7750, which has been superseded by BS EN ISO 14001:2015,
total quality environmental management, which is part of the US' global environmental management initiative,
the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES) principles,
The PDCA model
An EMS follows a Plan > Do > Check > Act (PDCA) cycle. As you can see from the diagram below, PDCA is a model for continuous improvement. It can be used by small or large organizations in any industry, from utilities to automotive manufacturers to food processing companies.
- Plan: Develop a high level understanding of key environmental issues and stakeholder needs, then plan actions to address risks and opportunities.
- Do: Test the plan and track performance indicators.
- Check: Perform internal audits to assess the effectiveness of the system.
- Act: Address any issues found in your audits. Use what you learned to plan new improvements as the cycle starts again.
5 tips for implementing an EMS
Implementing an EMS will look different for every organization, but there are a few tips that can help ensure your success:
- Appoint 'green champions'. These are people within your organization who are passionate and informed about your environmental efforts and will drive your project forward.
- Clearly outline responsibilities to create a sense of ownership and get employees across your organization involved in improving environmental performance.
- Train specific groups of employees on their specific responsibilities within the EMS.
- Go for "quick wins" to build confidence and demonstrate that your EMS is working.
- Communicate frequently with both management and employees.
What is environmental management systems software?
Environmental professionals use a variety of different tools to manage their day-to-day responsibilities. Paper forms, spreadsheets, and homegrown databases are just a few of the common tools people use.
However, the sheer volume of environmental data often makes these tools inadequate for managing environmental performance. What's more, as the number of environmental regulations grows, paper- and spreadsheet-based systems usually struggle to keep up. This can lead to a number of problems including missed deadlines and fines.
That's where environmental management systems software comes in. EMS software can help you monitor, measure, and report on the performance of your environmental management system.
Environmental management software keeps track of your air, GHG, water, and waste data in one central location. It allows you to automate reminders, perform day-to-day tracking tasks, and create reports to show managers the “big picture”.
National Grid shows us why environmental management software is so valuable.
National Grid is an electricity and natural gas delivery company that connects nearly 7 million customers to vital energy sources. Before implementing Perillon environmental management software, National Grid managed its EMS using an internally built system. However, the aging system made it difficult to adjust to changing requirements, create reports, and get insights into deeper questions.
Since implementing the Perillon system, the company has progressed toward its goal of zero incidents. Says Michael Tucker, National Grid's manager of environmental programs, "National Grid's motto is 'trusted to do the right thing' and Perillon's properly implemented environmental management system allows me to know where I stand every day, with surety."
4 common environmental management system misconceptions
When it comes to environmental management systems, there are plenty of myths and misconceptions floating around. Here are four of the most common:
Myth 1: Spreadsheets are adequate for managing environmental data
Research shows that 88% of spreadsheets contain significant errors, putting you at risk for a non-compliance event. Emailing spreadsheets back and forth makes collaboration difficult. And creating a formatted regulatory report for each agency or permit can take days or weeks.
Myth 2: We have a compliance program in place, so we don't need an EMS
An EMS can make it easier for you to comply with regulations consistently and efficiently. It can also help you identify opportunities to go beyond the minimum standard and reduce costs, grow your business, and manage risks.
Myth 3: All environmental management systems are the same
Not all companies face the same regulations or permit requirements, which means the development and implementation process can look dramatically different from one organization to another.
Myth 4: Only large organizations need an environmental management system
Organizations of all sizes can benefit from an environmental management system. In fact, small business often face greater environmental risks due to lack of time and resources, which makes them ideal candidates for a structured environmental management system.
Why do you need environmental management software?
We’ve already hinted at some of the benefits of using environmental management software, but let’s look at some specific ways it can impact your environmental performance and help you fulfill your compliance obligations.
1. Keep track of deadlines, tasks, and documents
Environmental management software provides your organization with a centralized database to store all your air, waste, water, and GHG information and relevant documents. This often includes a centralized calendar that lets you track and manage your environmental permit requirements and other time-sensitive obligations to ensure compliance.
Environmental management software can automatically notify you of regulatory deadlines and other actions, alert you when permit limits or other thresholds are exceeded, and even automatically assign corrective actions based on conditions you set. Taking advantage of these automated features will help reduce your compliance risk.
2. Manage large volumes of environmental data
By reducing reliance on spreadsheets, environmental management software has helped revolutionize environmental data management. Gone are the days of manually compiling data and painstakingly updating Excel formulas to perform calculations and create reports.
You can pull in data from CEMS or production systems, create and manage formulas, set threshold limits, generate air emissions inventories, and more — all without wrangling spreadsheets. (It’s worth noting that most platforms do allow you to feed in data from spreadsheets and export to Excel, too.)
3. Simplify audits and inspections
Environmental management software offers tools to manage audits and inspections. You can configure any type of assessment, including:
- Environmental compliance audits
- Risk assessments
- Stormwater inspections (SWPPP/SPCC)
- Quality checks
- Maintenance inspections
4. Streamline reporting
As we mentioned above, environmental management software enables you to manage huge volumes of environmental data. This makes things much easier when the time comes for reporting. Rather than spending weeks compiling and formatting reports, environmental management software lets you create complex environmental reports in seconds.
No matter what type of report you need to create, environmental management software allows you to automatically extract relevant data with the click of a button:
- Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program (e-GGRT)
- HAP and TAP inventories
- Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) reporting
- MACT and NESHAP
- NPDES permit management
- Discharge Monitoring Reporting (DMR)
5. Optimize environmental performance
Environmental management software enables you to view your environmental and compliance performance data in real-time in dynamic dashboards. That means you can see exactly where your company stands at any given time. With this information at your fingertips, environmental managers and executives can make informed decisions and proactively influence environmental performance.
Visualizing your entire organization’s environmental performance in one place makes for easy decision-making and reporting.
6. Improve ESG performance and disclosure
The global focus on climate change — along with growing demands from investors and consumers for more environmentally sustainable business practices — has elevated environmental, social, and governance (ESG) to a boardroom issue. ESG disclosure is not yet mandatory for all companies, but it very likely will be in the future. A good environmental management software system will naturally include many of the same functions necessary for ESG management, such as capturing data, calculating emissions, and generating reports.
What should I look for in environmental management software?
For all the reasons we listed above, many organizations are moving away from traditional pencil-and-paper systems in favor of modern environmental management software. But finding the right system can be a challenge, and what works well for one organization might not work for another, and vice versa. Here are a few things you’ll want to consider if you’re looking for an environmental management software system.
Custom vs. off-the-shelf
The question about investing in custom software is a common yet difficult one. While customization might seem like a great idea at first, it can also make it extremely difficult to scale. Unfortunately, many organizations outgrow their custom software before they see a return on their investment. In fact, research from Standish Group shows that 80% of custom software projects cost more than they return.
In terms of cost, features, and long term ROI, an off-the-shelf system like Perillon is almost always the best bet for growing businesses and global enterprises. For more information, download our guide "Homegrown vs. Off-the-Shelf EHS Software: Pros, Cons, and Finding the Right Fit".
Today, self-configurable environmental software enables you to create your own forms, dashboard views, and workflows for a personalized experience without expensive custom services.
You can use drag-and-drop functionality, administrative options, permissions, filters, and modules to adapt and scale the software to meet your organization’s specific needs.
Ease of use
Just because environmental management is complicated doesn't mean your software should be. A user-friendly software allows employees to focus on their tasks rather than on learning a new tool. And the easier the software is to use, the more quickly employees will adopt the new system.
Now more than ever, employees need to be able to work from wherever they are. Good environmental management software should include mobile capabilities that allow employees to access their data remotely from any smartphone or tablet. Given the nature of environmental management, the ability to capture data offline is also must. This will allow employees to complete tasks such as audits and inspections in the field and sync once they're back on WiFi.
Whichever environmental management software you choose, it should be able to integrate with your other business systems such as CEMs and ERP. Integrations allow your systems to 'talk to each other' and share information. By eliminating the need for duplicate data entry, integrations will increase your team's productivity. And, it will enable faster, more accurate reporting by allowing you to leverage environmental data captured at the source.
Now you are ready to ask the software companies some questions:
- How long will it take to create formulated regulatory reports?
- How long will it take to change calculations when regulatory requirements change?
- Can this system integrate with our data collection tools, like Continuous Emissions Monitoring (CEMS)?
- Does this system integrate with regulatory content databases to provide real-time visibility of regulations?
- What kind of mobile capabilities does this software have?
- Can this system handle our other EHS needs, like heath and safety management?
- How long will it take to implement this system? Can the modules be rolled out individually so we can get up and running quickly?
- What kind of training and support will you provide? Will we have a dedicated service account manager?
- Can this system scale to our needs?
- What is the cost of ownership over 3 years? Are there any charges for upgrades, configuration, maintenance, additional users or features, or other fees?
- What can I expect for ROI/payback period?
- How will you make sure our information stays secure?
With rapidly changing regulations and EHS professionals juggling more demands than ever, there's no denying the need for an environmental management system. It's a systematic way to keep up with new environmental regulations, standardize compliance, and manage your environmental performance. The thought of building an EMS from scratch might seem intimidating at first, but the right tips and tools can make it easier. Not only will environmental management software store all your data and documents in one place, it will also simplify audits and inspections, streamline reporting, and provide valuable insights into how you can improve your environmental performance.
Note: This page was originally published in 2018 and updated January 6 2023 for freshness and accuracy.