The challenges of environmental auditing and self-certification
Different countries and regions have different audit processes – but the lack of a universal definition makes it difficult for printers to comply.
Environmental auditing – not to be confused with environmental impact assessment – is becoming increasingly important to the specialised printing industry as companies look to satisfy the demands of both customers and regulators.
Although there is no universally accepted definition, the European Commission describes environmental auditing as:
A management tool comprising systematic, documented, periodic and objective evaluation of how well environmental organisation, management and equipment are performing with the aim of helping to safeguard the environment by facilitating management control of practices and assessing compliance with company policies, which would include regulatory requirements and standards.
There are three main types of audit that printing firms may wish to have conducted:
- Environmental compliance audit – these are typically the most comprehensive as they are intended to review the site or company’s legal compliance status, which can be expensive
- Environmental management audit – conducted by an organisation and/or management in order to understand how it’s meeting its own environmental performance expectations
- Functional environmental audits – specific audits focused on one environmental element or impact, such as water or electricity.
However, a growing number of standards, inconsistent audits, and a lack of competent auditors, can make it difficult to compare this work internationally, leading to confusion and scepticism around companies’ self-certification with environmental requirements.
Who are the big auditors internationally?
Companies can use internal or external auditors to manage their environmental audits depending on their resources and motivations. Some of the big players which can assist internationally include:
- Bureau Veritas
- ERM CVS
All of these firms look to assess the environmental effects of companies’ activities, providing a snapshot of what is happening at a point in time in an organisation. However, due to differing standards and requirements for environmental sustainability, there is often inconsistency in the auditing process.
Almost 60% of sustainability professionals surveyed by the UK-based Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) in 2018 agreed that they were dealing with an increasing number of environmental standards for auditing. “Respondents suggested that this is a challenge for auditors, but in addition, it is the changes or developments in legislation (i.e. audit criteria), that can be difficult to keep up with,” IEMA said in a report. “Lack of knowledge of legislation was seen as a widespread problem.”
Cultural differences and perspectives – such as approaches to social and ethical issues – also impact auditing practices, and different jurisdictions will have varying methodologies in the audit process. Half of the professionals surveyed said that consideration of social and ethical issues is becoming increasingly important.
“This was raised by a number of respondents who work outside the UK, in relation to the need for auditors to be aware of cultural differences and the implications of different jurisdictions on environmental management practices, and so avoid a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach,” the IEMA report states. “Some organisations subscribe to international environmental or sustainability protocols that are not understood by UK auditors.”
Complexity and competence
Assessing all the environmental effects of an organisation is complex. Some auditors only include the biophysical elements when defining the environment, while others include social aspects and additional ecosystem risks.
In 2020, a study by the Nanjing Audit University in China found that most auditors lack experience and knowledge when assessing the full environmental life cycle of businesses’ operations. “Some questions remain unanswered,” lead author Antony Wafula Wanyonyi wrote. “For example, how far should auditors take part in the organisational supply chain? How can auditors deal with the digital economy? What elements define good practices or ethics in the society?”
Additional challenges with external certification auditing include:
- Audit reports based on templates, with findings often unclear
- Reports are copied, so often have errors, such as previous details left in
- Lack of sector knowledge (such as specialised printing)
- Difficulty challenging the certifiers
- Audits only provide a snapshot or performance at one point in time
- Can be expensive.
The ISO 14000 standards provide a framework for businesses of all sizes to carry out internal environmental audits. However, these are also criticised for being too general in terms of scope and compliance with regulations.
“Some auditors – including external certification auditors – also struggle to interpret new requirements of ISO 14001:2015 and other new standards, resulting in inconsistency,” according to IEMA’s report.
It continues: “Many lack the confidence to audit senior management – even more of a barrier in some cultures where it is not customary to challenge senior colleagues – and also may not be able to communicate effectively with them (lack of knowledge of business strategy, business management, etc). This also includes the implications of Brexit.”
A work in progress
As with much environmental and sustainability-related work, there are still various challenges that need to be overcome, and more issues emerge the more we understand about our interactions with the natural world. “There is a need for more guidance for improving auditor competence, and common competence standards should be adopted by accredited bodies, with periodic competence assessments,” IEMA states. “There will be a need for competent and qualified verifiers for some of the emerging ISO standards.”
In the meantime, the specialised printing sector cannot afford to let perfect be the enemy of good, and dedicated environmental management systems and innovations in real-time auditing are also addressing many of the challenges facing businesses worldwide.
Some of the tangible benefits that firms can enjoy through environmental auditing include:
- Understanding of their legal requirements and ensuring they are adhering to those requirements.
- Ability to demonstrate they are environmentally responsible
- Increased knowledge of environmental risks
- Improved environmental performance
- Potential cost savings and improved financial performance.
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