How Green Is Your City? ISO Certification Helps Answer the Question

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Several U.S. cities are competing to be crowned the "greenest" in the country, particularly now that there’s stimulus money tied to things like energy efficiency, green jobs programs and public transit improvements.

But with ‘"first-of-its-kind" programs rolling out seemingly every week, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate the true leaders from the great marketers.

Case in point, last week Denver became the first U.S. city to achieve registration to the ISO 14001 standard across multiple departments.

If you’re asking yourself what that means, you are not alone.

The international ISO 14001 standard governs environmental management systems and monitors their continual improvement towards goals such as resource efficiency, waste reduction, and effective management of environmental risks. It’s a voluntary program favored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but not yet widely adopted by U.S. cities.

According to Denver officials, achieving ISO registration was worthwhile on two fronts: Working toward registration provided a way to both implement and gauge progress on Greenprint Denver, the Mayor’s sustainability plan for the city; and the steps taken to get registered will save the city money.

To qualify, the city also had to streamline and improve the environmental programs, such as its green buildings, green fleets, and renewable energy programs, which could help it win future grants from both state and federal governments.

"As the environmental management system takes effect, we anticipate savings from a variety of areas," says Paul Schmiechen, the city’s lead environmental management system coordinator.

"Energy savings will clearly be one of the largest we should see over the next few years, particularly as we enhance the existing green building program, and we also expect to see savings from using less toxic materials, which will result in lower hazardous waste disposal fees."

Schmiechen gives the city’s vehicle maintenance facility as an example. Staff there have switched from using solvent-based parts washers to aqueous parts washers and saved $3,200 per year in reduced material costs and lowered disposal fees, not to mention the less tangible (but equally valuable) "savings" delivered in terms of keeping dangerous toxins out of the city’s water, soil, and air.

So why haven’t more cities embraced green certification?

Simply put, some cities just aren’t ready for it. Though recent reports indicate that the majority of large cities have some sort of sustainability initiative in place, there is quite a bit of difference between those that have been working toward their goals since the 1970s and those that have only recently begun to think about what "green" means in their city.

Denver, for example, has a long history of environmental commitment, thanks in large part to its abundance of natural resources and liberal-leaning residents. The city began formalizing its sustainability plan and allotting serious resources to its initiatives in the early part of this decade.

According to Christian Lupo, General Manager of NSF International Strategic Registrations, the firm that helped register Denver, there are also not many certification auditors out there that understand the nuance of registering a city versus registering a manufacturer. By far the majority of ISO registrants to dates are in manufacturing, where the ISO 9000 standard has long been the benchmark for quality control throughout the world.

The ISO 14001 standard was released in 2004 and adds environmental management to ISO 9000’s quality control measurements. For non-manufacturing businesses, the ISO 14001 standard has become a way to formalize sustainability policies, measure progress, and make third-party-verified claims related to that progress.

In order for cities to achieve the ISO 14001 standard, they must have a citywide environmental management system, and not all cities are there yet. Still, Lupo says,

"More cities will adopt ISO 14001 as the early adopters reap the benefits of registration."

While there are a handful of other registered cities – namely San Jose, San Diego, Dallas, and Scottsdale, Ariz. – Lupo says Denver is the first to clearly define the connection between developing an environmental management system and advancing a sustainability agenda, a connection he expects to see other cities making soon.

In the absence of other third-party sustainability certifications for cities, ISO 14001 could very well become the trusted seal of approval for green cities, at least until the STAR Community Index begins rating communities for sustainability in 2010.

"Many cities claim to be green," says Schmiechen. "Denver uses independent outside auditors to help support our claims."