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The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), based in Geneva, is one of the key international voluntary standards bodies. Standards developed by ISO are available to the 140 or so member countries to adopt as they see fit. Although ISO standards are voluntary, many are eventually cited in legislation.

ISO has a rigorous process for standards development. When a new standard is proposed, it must be approved either by a technical committee or by the Technical Management Board of ISO. Once a technical committee is established, it may establish subcommittees and working groups to carry out the work.

There are currently around 2,850 active technical committees, sub-committees and working groups, made up of qualified representatives from around the world. To date, more than 12,000 ISO standards have been published.

ISO has a general rule that all standards must be reviewed at least every five years.

The ISO 14000 family
The ISO 14000 family of environmental management and auditing standards is not concerned with environmental performance. This distinction is fundamental. Rather than dealing with measures of performance such as energy efficiency and emissions, a management standard establishes what the organization needs to do in order to meet its goals.

The ISO 14000 family contains more than 20 standards, guides, and other publications, dealing with a variety of topics such as forest management and life-cycle assessment. The following is a sample of the ISO 14000 series.
   ISO 14001
    Environmental Management Systems - Specification With Guidance for Use
    ISO 14004
    Environmental Management Systems - General Guidelines on Principles, Systems and Supporting Techniques
    ISO 14010
    Guidelines for Environmental Auditing - General Principles of Environmental Auditing
    ISO 14011
    Guidelines for Environmental Auditing - Audit procedures Part 1: Auditing of Environmental Management System
    ISO 14012
    Guidelines for Environmental Auditing - Qualification Criteria for Environmental Auditors

The ISO 14001 standard
It is a fundamental principle of ISO 14001, which governs environmental management systems, that organizations set their own goals, based on whatever considerations they wish to include, such as the demands of clients, regulators, communities, lenders or environmental groups. The ISO 14001 standard provides a framework within which to develop plans to meet those targets, and to produce information about whether or not the targets are met.

By the end of 2001, nearly 32,000 organizations worldwide had received ISO 14001 accreditation.

An important benefit of adopting ISO 14001 is to give stakeholders the reassurance they need that the organization's environmental claims are valid.

The ISO 14001 standard is intended to be flexible, and to be of value in a wide variety of situations. However, it is applicable most readily to large companies that already have a formal management system in place, and which have the expertise and resources to incorporate environmental issues into that system.
However, the principles have been designed to apply also to smaller businesses, and to non-business organizations.

In general, conformance with one of the international standards can lead to the implementation of other standards. For example, once an organization has implemented ISO 14001, it is easier for it to satisfy the requirements of EMAS (the European Eco-Management and Audit Scheme).