How will the ISO 26000 guidance standard on social responsibility stand out from the clutter of other standards and guidelines?

After a nine-year process that has included five years of worldwide consultations and negotiations, the ISO 26000 guidance standard on social responsibility is due to be launched this year. The final arrival has renewed the debate about the intent, content and character of ISO 26000, and potential implications for companies and even non-profit organisations.

The draft ISO 26000 guidance standard has been developed by the International Organisation for Standardisation in consultation with stakeholders and experts from over 90 countries and 42 international organisations. It now needs to be approved by the members in a five-month balloting exercise that ends in February. The draft requires agreement from at least 75% of the votes cast in order to be published and launched.

But why is another social responsibility standard needed? Hundreds of standards have proliferated while ISO 26000 was being negotiated over the past decade. So how is ISO 26000 different from numerous other standards?

Paul Hohnen, an Amsterdam-based sustainability consultant and an expert participant in the ISO working group on social responsibility since 2004, says even though there are many standards and guidelines, there is no adequately detailed international standard on social responsibility. “If approved, ISO 26000 will be the broadest and deepest articulation of a shared view of the meaning of social responsibility ever developed,” he says. The draft guidance standard runs to 99 pages, making it the bulkiest and most descriptive standard on social responsibility. (See p42 for more analysis from Paul Hohnen on ISO 26000.)

Unlike other initiatives that are mainly directed at business organisations, ISO 26000 is intended to be applicable to all types of organisations in the private, public and non-profit sectors irrespective of their size or location.

Wide consultation

Thomas Thomas, executive director of Singapore Compact for CSR and a member of the chairman’s advisory group for ISO 26000, says the guidance standard is the result of extensive consultations with stakeholders. This makes ISO 26000 the most widely accepted draft standard on social responsibility – a good reason for organisations to adopt it when launched.

Many organisations, including small and medium enterprises, currently do not use international social responsibility standards or produce CSR reports as they don’t understand what an ethical framework is. ISO 26000 has the potential to make a substantial difference to these organisations as it provides high quality guidance on social responsibility.

ISO 26000 will also be the first standard to try to define the relationship between organisational responsibility and societal interest. “ISO 26000 basically says that society has interests that organisations should respect,” says Dwight Justice, policy adviser at the Brussels headquartered International Trade Union Confederation, who has participated in the ISO 26000 consultations from the early days.

Justice says this approach distinguishes between the societal interests and the responsibility of an organisation to take them into account. “The guidance standard says an organisation should pay attention to what society is saying what its needs are, not what the organisation thinks is convenient and consistent with its own goals to be responsible.” The guidance standard does not assume that a business or an organisation can define by itself what the interests of society are, he says.

An important aspect of ISO 26000 is that, unlike most ISO standards, it is a voluntary guidance standard and not a management system standard. This means that ISO 26000 is not a certifiable standard even though the certification industry and consultants who were hoping to make money from selling the certification like other ISO standards had wanted it to be certifiable.

Challenges ahead

Even though ISO 26000 is not a certification standard, national standards organisations and governments could potentially use the guidance document to introduce national standards and legislation that then become certifiable or require compliance. In the past, governments have passed laws inspired by various ISO standards.

Justice cautions: “Some national standards bodies may come up with a quick checklist saying it is based on ISO 26000 and enabling people to self-certify. That will be somewhat misleading.”

Experts say there is also a risk of unscrupulous organisations adopting creative ways to give an impression in their corporate responsibility reports that their actions conform with ISO 26000 guidance standards.

“ISO should be very clear about what ISO 26000 is and what it is not. Otherwise it is going to create more confusion in the marketplace,” says Sean Ansett, managing partner at Madrid-based corporate responsibility consulting At Stake Advisors.

He says that, for example, suppliers to multinational brands, which are already complaining of standards clutter and audit fatigue, may view ISO 26000 as a silver bullet, which it is not. Brands are still going to continue to audit and monitor their suppliers using their codes of conduct even if the supplier claims it follows ISO 26000.

ISO’s challenges are, however, not limited to how the guidance standard is launched and explained to avoid its misuse. ISO is also faced with a growing scrutiny of the way it developed the standard and its role in setting social standards.

ISO had structured several groups of stakeholders for the purpose of consultations including consumers, government, industry, labour and NGOs. Justice points out that not all stakeholders were adequately or evenly represented in the consultations process, saying: “Consumers and labour were the smallest groups even though as constituents in society they are very important.” He says they did not have resources to participate in this kind of process. “On the other hand, industry and service providers, who are used to participating in the ISO process, were able to afford to participate and were well represented.” He says these are serious procedural concerns.

Labour groups are also concerned about ISO taking up the task of setting labour standards, which they believe is the domain of the International Labour Organisation. Justice says his union organisation is satisfied with the draft guidance standard, but adds: “We are still not happy with the ISO getting into the area of public policy. We don’t think ISO is built for that kind of standard setting.” He explains that there are already international organisations established to deal with broad area of social issues. “One of the things we tried to do was to make sure that the ISO’s social standards did not usurp or replace the standards set by the ILO.”

ISO 26000 also faces a potential opposition from a group of countries, led mainly by China, that are not comfortable with the use of language lifted from international agreements on human rights, labour and environment. They fear such language will make ISO 26000 a benchmark for minimum standards of organisational responsibility.

Political challenges

Since some of their own national laws do not measure up to international conventions and declarations, a stricter ISO 26000 can potentially create pressure for conformity with higher standards and wider accountability.

China, which unsuccessfully tried to block the text from going to the draft international standard stage last year, is said to be using diplomatic efforts to gather support to reject the draft in the balloting process. “If ISO 26000 does not become a standard, it will be a very large set-back to CSR,” Justice warns.

One sustainability analyst, preferring to remain anonymous, says: “Political opposition to a very democratic and conventional process within the ISO term can backfire. It can damage the opposing country’s national profile and actually amplify the importance of the standard that they just wished would go away.”

Politics apart, stakeholders will closely watch how ISO 26000 makes an impact in the market cluttered with a wide variety of standards. The draft guidance standard says: “The beginner may find it useful to read and apply this international standard from start to finish as a primer on social responsibility, while the experienced user may wish to use it to improve existing practices and to further integrate social responsibility into the organisation.”

Another ISO communication states that ISO 26000 will help organisations to move from good intentions to good actions.

Sean Ansett says that, for companies: “It is not the only tool in their toolbox.” In other words, they should use ISO 26000 as a powerful additional tool to improve their social responsibility programmes.

Draft ISO 26000 guidance standard at a glance

Principles of social responsibility:

  • accountability;
  • transparency;
  • ethical behaviour;
  • respect for stakeholder interests;
  • respect for the rule of law;
  • respect for international norms of behaviour; and
  • respect for human rights.

Core subjects covered:

  • human rights;
  • labour practices;
  • environment;
  • fair operating practices;
  • consumer issues; and
  • community involvement and development.
    Source: ISO Draft International Standard 26000. For full draft, visit

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