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The New ISO 26000 Social Responsibility Standard - What's Happening?

Dr. Kernaghan Webb (Professor, Business Law, Ryerson University, Canada)


Dr. Kernaghan Webb

Over recent years, there has been significant interest and debate on the topic of "Corporate Social Responsibility". Consumers, citizens, businesses, and non-governmental organizations around the world are looking for ways of distinguishing credible and effective socially responsible organizations from those that are not.

In 2005, after much deliberation, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) initiated the development of a guidance standard for social responsibility, to be published as "ISO 26000". Although expected to align with and be consistent with the existing ISO 9000 and ISO 14000 standards, ISO 26000 is not, strictly speaking, a management system standard and is not being written with certification in mind.

ISO 26000 is intended to:

  • Assist organizations in addressing their social responsibilities
  • Provide practical guidance related to effectively implementing social responsibility throughout the organization
  • Assist organizations in identifying and engaging with stakeholders
  • Enhance the credibility of reports and claims made about social responsibility

The emphasis of ISO 26000 will be on organizational performance, results and improvements, thereby increasing consumer satisfaction and confidence with an organization, its activities, products and services. The standard will also be consistent with and certainly not in conflict with existing standards and treaties. It is likely to cross reference to authoritative inter-governmental instruments that articulate such substantive norms. Because ISO 26000 is the product of an international non-governmental process and organization, it is explicitly designed to not infringe on or reduce the legitimate authority of governments to set appropriate substantive norms of behaviour through conventional legislative processes.

Development Process
The ISO Working Group responsible for developing ISO 26000 is a very large one, reflecting the extensive international interest in the topic. Participation currently includes 350 experts from 49 countries, coming not only from national standards bodies, but also from a wide range of governmental, labour, consumer, non-governmental organizations, standards bodies, academia etc.
Representation from such a broad range of significant "players" will assist in ensuring that the final version of the standard will be useful and "inter-operable" as far as possible with existing initiatives. Also noteworthy is the significant involvement of developing country participants, whose numbers are almost equal to those of developed country experts.

The initial meeting of the Working Group was held in Brazil in early 2005, basically to define the "ground rules" for the project, and at the second meeting held in Bangkok, in September 2005, a "design specification" i.e. a framework or outline for the standard was agreed.

The design specification foresees sections of the standard pertaining to:

  • The social responsibility context in which organizations operate
  • Social responsibility principles
  • Core social responsibility subjects and issues
  • Guidance on implementing and integrating social responsibility in the organization, including, for example, policies, practices, approaches, issue dentification, performance assessment, reporting and communication

Stakeholder issues are to be addressed throughout the standard.

What is "Social Responsibility"?
One of the interesting points that came out of the early meetings is that that despite extensive interest in the topic, there is at present no universally accepted and authoritative definition of "social responsibility". Agreement by the Working Group on such a definition will be an important contribution to the worldwide understanding, and to adoption of social responsibility practices.

Drawing on the definition of corporate social responsibility found in Corporate Social Responsibility: An Implementation Guide for Canadian Business, social responsibility might be understood as encompassing the way an organization integrates social, environmental and economic concerns into its values, culture, decision-making, strategy and operations, and thereby establishes better practices within the organization, creating wealth and improving society.

In this interpretation of the concept, compliance with laws (social, environmental and economic) is assumed. Building on a base of compliance with legislation and regulations, social responsibility typically includes "beyond law" commitments and activities pertaining to:

  • Corporate governance and ethics
  • Health and safety
  • Environmental stewardship
  • Human rights (including core labour rights)
  • Human resource management
  • Community involvement, development and investment
  • Involvement of and respect for people from all ethnic origins
  • Corporate philanthropy and employee volunteering
  • Customer satisfaction and adherence to principles of fair competition
  • Anti-bribery and corruption measures
  • Accountability, transparency and performance reporting
  • Supplier relations, for both domestic and international supply chains

Application of ISO 26000
In general, governments are very interested in the ISO Social Responsibility standards because such voluntary, market-driven standards represent important ways of furthering public policy in a complex global marketplace, as adjuncts to conventional regulatory models. In the opinion of the author, while it is important to respect the sovereignty of nations to develop their own substantive norms of environmental, social, and economic behaviour through legislative processes in their jurisdictions, it is also important for organizations to behave responsibly and in accordance with international consensus-based standards wherever the organizations operate, even if the rule of law and capacity of governments and courts to enforce laws is not highly advanced.

In this regard, the existence of a voluntary international standard on social responsibility, developed through an established, high profile organization such as ISO, operating in a transparent manner, is an important piece in the overall global framework for social responsibility, working in conjunction with existing instruments and institutions such as the United Nations Global Compact, the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, and the Global Reporting Initiative Reporting Guidelines.

The ISO 26000 standard being developed breaks new ground in a number of important respects:

  • It has brought together inter-governmental, governmental, NGO, labour, consumer, standards organizations, and others to develop a standard applicable throughout the world
  • It applies to social responsibility of all types of organizations, not just commercial organizations
  • The standard takes the form of a non-management system standard, not intended for certification, yet intended to provide guidance on implementation
  • It potentially is an important bridging instrument when aligned with other instruments, such as those of the UN, the OECD, and the GRI

For all of these reasons, ISO 26000 will be an important new instrument for governance, intended to address the increasingly complex situations faced by organizations around the world in the 21st century.

At the time of publication of this article, the development of ISO 26000 continues, and the first rough drafts of the standard are currently under discussion within the ISO Working Group. These drafts will then be subjected to intense review during the international consensus-building process, and are likely to undergo substantial modifications and improvements before eventually being published in 2008.

Dr. Kernaghan Webb is the Senior Legal Policy Advisor and Chief of Research at the Office of Consumer Affairs, Department of Industry, Government of Canada. He is the "government stakeholder category" expert for Canada participating in the ISO 26000 Working Group standards development process. Dr. Webb is a Professor of Business Law at Ryerson University in Canada. He can be reached at kernaghan.webb@ryerson.ca.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and should not be taken to represent the views of any organization he might be affiliated with.

(This article is published in "Vision", Issue 21, September 2006.)

In case of any discrepancies between English and Chinese version, the English version shall prevail.

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