Title page for ETD etd-06092011-114149

Type of Document Dissertation
Author Mil-Homens, Joao
Author's Email Address joaomh@gmail.com
URN etd-06092011-114149
Title Labeling Schemes or Labeling Scams? Auditors’ Perspectives on ISO 14001 Certification
Degree PhD
Department Urban Affairs and Planning
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Randolph, John Committee Co-Chair
Rees, Joseph V. Committee Co-Chair
Ebrahim, Alnoor S. Committee Member
Rich, Richard C. Committee Member
  • Audit
  • Certification
  • ISO 14001
  • Self-Regulation
  • Environmental Management Systems
Date of Defense 2011-05-23
Availability unrestricted
Hundreds of thousands of organizations have chosen to boost their competitive position by demonstrating compliance to the ISO 14001 Environmental Management System standard. In order for these standards to become credible policy options, they must ensure the capacity to build an industrial morality and to institutionalize responsibility. Relying on a series of in-depth interviews with environmental auditors, this dissertation contributes to a deeper empirical understanding of these regulatory instruments by, first, exploring how the adoption of an EMS promotes self-regulatory capacity and contributes toward effective environmental protection, and second, discussing the limitations of its accountability structure and the threats to the credibility of the standard.

This project highlights several misconceptions associated with the role of ISO 14001, and explains why both public and private sectors hold conflicting and inappropriate expectations regarding the certification process. According to the environmental auditors interviewed, the standard has helped thousands of committed organizations to effectively improve their self-regulatory capacity as well as their environmental performance. Yet, organizations with no intrinsic motivation can take advantage of the flexibility granted by the standard and the limitations of the conformity assessment process, to obtain an empty environmental certificate. ISO 14001 is a process standard that can help both ‘environmental leaders and laggards’, but that cannot differentiate organizations based on their level of environmental performance. Because of that, ISO 14001 is increasingly perceived as a socially unacceptable certification system. This project concludes that ISO 14001 is a double edge regulatory instrument that aims both to foster self-regulatory powers, and to act as a market signaling agent. The problem lies in the fact that these two facets of the standard are actually detrimental to each other, perpetuating a cycle that contributes to the discredit of the standard and of the auditing community. In the future, ISO 14001 needs to adjust its non-prescriptive nature and its accountability mechanism, to the character of the organizations seeking certification. In alternative, a new generation of certification programs is emerging, building upon the ISO 14001 standard with an extra layer of requirements, and with a more meaningful role for the environmental auditor.

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