Barriers and Incentives to the Adoption of ISO 14001 by Firms in the United States

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During the past three decades, regulatory agencies in the United States and other countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) went through a three stage evolution in dealing with and managing environmental pollution, and gradually discovered that working with the private sector to manage industrial pollution can yield more beneficial results than traditional command and control approaches).(1) They started out with the traditional command and control approach which, if adequately enforced, has the virtues of high dependability and predictability, but sometimes proves to be inflexible and inefficient.(2) In the mid-1980s, environmental regulation entered its second generation emphasizing the employment of market-based strategies and tools such as pollution taxes, tradable permits, and deposit-refund systems.(3) These instruments were believed to improve both economic efficiency and environmental effectiveness by relying on market incentives.(4) Finally, in the 1990s, environmental regulation entered its third generation placing great emphasis on voluntary environmental initiatives.(5) Voluntary programs function by providing technical information and public recognition to participants, and in return ask participants to commit to the goal of pollution reduction, such as adopting technological changes that lead to pollution reduction.(6) Voluntary initiatives signal a movement away from traditional adversarial relationships between industries and governments towards those which are more cooperative in nature and involve varying degrees of government intervention.(7) To date there has been considerable research into the application of regulatory and economic instruments for environmental policy.(8) Furthermore, there has been meaningful research into the motivations for and advantages and disadvantages of voluntary initiatives, such as the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) 14000 series.(9) However, to the author's knowledge, such research has not been based on independent empirical surveys of firms. Nor has there been any research based on empirical surveys of U.S. firms. In this respect, this paper partly fills this void by presenting an analysis of ISO 14001, based on empirical surveys of U.S. firms that have adopted the ISO 14001.(10)

An environmental management system (EMS) is one of the tools which firms can use to voluntarily implement environmental policy. An EMS consists of "a number of interrelated elements that function together to help a firm manage, measure, and improve the environmental aspects of its operations."(11) These elements include creating environmental policies, setting objectives and targets, implementing programs to achieve those objectives and targets, monitoring and measuring the effectiveness of the programs, correcting problems, if any, and reviewing the programs and their overall performance for improvement thereof.(12) However, an obvious problem would arise if each firm designs its own system to meet its own particular needs: different non-compatible systems will emerge for each firm, making it difficult to compare the environmental effects resulting from such different systems.(13) Even though the contents, aims, outcomes of initial reviews, and objectives of EMSs would probably differ from sector to sector, there are nonetheless common stages within an EMS that any organization or firm can utilize to ensure that the environment is considered in its policies and processes.(14) Without a common international standard, firms would be forced to deal with dozens of separate and potentially incompatible EMSs for every country in which they conduct business.(15) This could potentially increase the transaction cost for such firms and also function as an undesirable trade barrier.(16)

Since 1990 there have been efforts at the national level, within the European Union, and at the international level to standardize EMSs by defining the essential elements which such a system should contain. …