March 28th, 2010, by John Shideler

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) reached a milestone in February when countries participating in the development of ISO 26000, Guidance on social responsibility, approved the latest version of their document as a Draft International Standard. This brings ISO one step closer to publication of an International Standard which could occur later in 2010 or in 2011.

The road to this milestone has been long and bumpy. Seven meetings of 430 experts from 90 countries and representing 40 organizations have been held, and what could be the final one is scheduled for May 2010. Although the Danish host of the May meeting, Ole Blöndal, stated in his invitation letter that the document now represents “broad consensus on common guidelines among different stakeholders around the world,” the results of the DIS ballot suggest that serious differences of opinion remain. Before returning to that topic, let’s take a closer look at the content of the standard.

The heart of the document is found in sections 3-6. Section 3 introduces the topic of social responsibility through discussions of its historical background, recent trends, characteristics of social responsibility, and the different roles for states and organizations with respect to the creation and application of laws.

Seven principles of social responsibility are set forth in section 4. They include:
• Accountability
• Transparency
• Ethical behavior
• Respect for stakeholder interests
• Respect for the rule of law
• Respect for international norms of behavior
• Respect for human rights.

Section 5, “Recognizing social responsibility and engaging stakeholders,” provides guidance on the relationship between an organization and its stakeholders and society. It defines core subjects and issues of social responsibility and describes the “sphere of influence” on these subjects and issues that an organization has.

The “core subjects” covered by the standard include the most likely economic, environmental and social impacts that should be addressed by organizations, namely:
• Organizational governance
• Human rights
• Labor practices
• The environment
• Fair operating practices
• Consumer issues
• Community involvement and development.

Section 6 of the standard is organized around the core subjects and associated issues relating to social responsibility. Subsections provide an overview for each subject, principles and considerations in understanding an organization’s role with respect to the topic, and detailed descriptions of issues and what related actions and expectations an organization should take with respect to them. For example, in subsection 6.5, the guidance provides an overview of the relationship of an organization to the environment and identifies four principles for organizations: environmental responsibility, use of the precautionary approach, environmental risk management, and polluter pays.

A section on “considerations” refers organizations to the following approaches and strategies:
• Life cycle thinking
• Environmental impact assessment
• Cleaner production and eco-efficiency
• A product-service system approach
• Use of environmentally sound technologies and practices, and
• Sustainable procurement.

Four environmental issues are analyzed in detail. They include prevention of pollution, sustainable resource use, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and protection of the environment and restoration of natural habitats.

Section 7 provides guidance on integrating social responsibility throughout an organization. Topics include increasing understanding of social responsibility and setting expectations, communication, taking action, monitoring progress and improving performance, and evaluating the relevance of voluntary initiatives outside the organization that are designed to assist organizations in meeting social responsibility objectives.

When all the country votes on adopting ISO 26000 as a Draft International Standard were counted in February 2010, the document that so many experts had worked on since 2005 barely achieved the needed margins for approval. It needed 52 affirmative votes and got 56; and it had to attract no more than 19 negative votes (it received 18). Half of no votes came from states in the Middle East. The other nine negative votes were cast by an array of countries that included Russia, China, India, Malaysia, Cuba, Viet Nam and Kazakhstan. Thirteen countries abstained or did not vote.

ISO/DIS 26000 represents a serious attempt to address the social responsibilities of organizations. The document is not designed to be used for certification purposes, and explicitly says that any certification program that makes such a claim is misrepresenting the intent of the standard. Nonetheless, it is difficult to define “actions and expectations” related to the world’s most important economic, social and environmental issues and not expect watchdogs, self-appointed or otherwise, to take heed and to hold organizations accountable for their actions, or inactions.

ISO/DIS 26000 is available for download at www.iso.org/wgsr.

© Futurepast: Inc., 2010

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