ISO Guidance on Social Responsibility Advances Toward Publication With Substantial–But Not Unanimous–International Support

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

© Futurepast: Inc., 2010

Sustainability and Social Responsibility, Now Mainstream Concepts, Remain Difficult to Achieve at Both Country and Corporate Levels

“Sustainability” and “social responsibility” have entered the mainstream vocabulary over the last two decades. Sustainability is a “second generation” term, having morphed into a more generalized concept from its narrower meaning in the phrase “sustainable development” that gained the world’s attention during the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The most widely cited definition of sustainable development came in Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report) published in 1987: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Social responsibility has had a parallel development. Early on, the term often appeared with the prefix “corporate,” but recognition that social responsibility is an obligation of institutions and governments as well as corporations has broadened the term’s application. A draft international standard, ISO 26000, embraces the broader context with its title “Guidance on social responsibility.” The ISO document defines social responsibility as “responsibility of an organization for the impacts of its decisions and activities on society and the environment through transparent and ethical behavior.”

If only it were as easy to achieve sustainable development and social responsibility as it is to define the terms!

Delegates to the follow-up conference to UNCED, which met in Johannesburg in 2002, generally voiced their disappointment that more progress had not been made to achieve the goals set out in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development called Agenda 21. In the nearly eight years since 2002, some progress has been achieved on coordinating action to combat climate change, but as the results of the December conference in Copenhagen shows, the world is still far from agreeing on a set of binding commitments to make the changes scientists say are needed to keep the Earth’s average temperature from rising more than 2° Celsius by the end of the present century.

In the meantime, some countries (Denmark, for example) have demonstrated that it is possible both to grow their economies and reduce their carbon intensity while adding “green” jobs. Other countries have taken on the binding commitments defined in the Kyoto Protocol, though not all will actually achieve their targeted reductions.

Many of the largest and most visible corporations commit publicly to operating in socially responsible and sustainable ways. Some acknowledge that the commitments help them preserve what they call their “social license to operate.” This means taking voluntary, proactive action to meet or exceed legally required actions in areas such as worker health and safety, environmental protection, and social impact mitigation. Corporations may promote sustainability in decision making not only to develop new or preserve existing lines of business, but also to manage risks and derive public relations benefits.

The Great Recession of 2008-2009 refocused the attention of many citizens on the bread-and-butter issues of jobs, income security, and the risks associated with rising government indebtedness. In the near term the political will to address climate change in the United States appears to have diminished as short-term costs of transitioning to a low-carbon economy take precedence over long-term questions of intergenerational equity.

The old adage that “a rising tide lifts all boats” no longer rings so true on Main Street. Ordinary citizens are distraught over persistently high unemployment in their communities and the financial challenges facing state and local governments. Many question the fairness of the apparent rebound of the Wall Street institutions that some say were principally responsible for the near collapse of the world economic system.

As painful as the Great Recession continues to be for individuals and families directly impacted by it, early shoots of recovery are visible in the United States. Will economic recovery shift attention to the need to act sustainably and in a socially responsible fashion? There are reasons for optimism. Sustainable development principles now are given consideration in the planning processes of many governments and are recognized by private sector actors. Social responsibility is defined and its concerns inform the planning and operations of many leading corporations. Results are measurable, and accountability is possible, if not always through legal mechanisms, then in the court of public opinion.

In the end, nearly everyone shares the common goal of leaving our children and grandchildren a world at least as good as the one we inherited. Demonstrating social responsibility and achieving sustainable development are important barometers for measuring the success of our generation’s stewardship of the Earth we inhabit.

© Futurepast: Inc., 2010.