Paul Hohnen says that a clear passage for the long awaited ISO 26000 guidance standard is far from certain

Crunch time is coming for the draft ISO 26000 guidance standard on social responsibility. Five years in the making, in a process involving hundreds of experts from government, business, employee, consumer and other organisations from around the world, the draft standard has reached the final phase in ISO’s standards development process.

It has progressed, in the ISO jargon, from a “working draft”, to a “committee draft” and now to a “draft international standard”. The proposed standard is scheduled to be finalised at the eighth meeting of the working group charged with its development, to be held in Copenhagen this May. It will then be put to a vote by the national standards organisations that make up ISO’s membership.

As things look now, its passage to final approval is far from being a given.

The draft standard, whose negotiation has attracted little mainstream media attention, is not your run-of-the-mill ISO technical standard on widget size. As ISO’s first attempt at a “soft” (ie non-technical and non-management) standard, its goal was from the outset nobly ambitious but fraught with challenges.

The draft ISO 26000 standard aims, in effect, to be the first global one-size-fits-all standard, providing guidance on social responsibility to all – and not just business – organisations.

In this, it can claim some considerable success. Coming in at a somewhat bulky 100 or so pages, it covers aspects such as the principles of social responsibility, and guidance on social responsibility core subjects and how to integrate these throughout an organisation. In recognition of the fact that it is not the only initiative in the corporate responsibility space, in its annex it provides examples of other voluntary instruments and tools for social responsibility. As the time for approval draws closer, however, talk of the need for further revision has become louder.

Critiques fall into three main categories: content, certification and cost.

On the content side, there is a bundle of unresolved issues. These range from concerns about the trade and competitive implications of the standard – the US government sent WTO trade lawyers to the last two negotiating sessions – through to its usefulness to small and medium-sized enterprises and its consistency with existing intergovernmental-agreed norms.

Certification contention

Both the US and Chinese governments have engaged in high level diplomatic correspondence with foreign governments. And there have been rumours of somewhat blunter pressures being applied on some countries to vote against the standard in its current form.

The certification point was a bone of contention from the outset. Some proponents wanted a standard that could support claims of good practice. In the event, it was decided by ISO to develop a guidance standard that is not intended for certification. Indeed, the current draft explicitly states that claims to be certified would amount to a “misrepresentation” of the standard’s purpose.

This has apparently not prevented talk in some national standards bodies (including host country Denmark) of certification options, in response to perceived market demand. Indeed, there have been some reported claims of certification.

Whether or not the standard is approved, it seems that some organisations have plans to integrate its DNA into their own instruments. What ISO can or will do about this remains to be seen.

The cost issue relates to ISO’s business model, where the organisation’s costs in developing a standard are recouped by sales of the standard. Here, a split has arisen between the ISO and the many participants who want the standard to be available free of charge, in keeping with the goal of maximising its uptake. A compromise offer by ISO involving some free access will be considered in Copenhagen.

With the recent failure of the Copenhagen climate conference still hanging in the air, there must be many who hope that the Danish capital will provide a more favourable negotiating atmosphere on May 17-21 when these issues will need to be resolved. Negotiators will be faced with two main choices.

The most appealing option for many will be to press ahead with a lightly edited version of the current draft. Proponents will argue that the draft international standard is “fit for purpose” and covers – better than has been done elsewhere – the main social responsibility issues in an easy-to-read way.

After five years of intensive negotiations, energy and budgets are also running low. A push to launch on schedule may increase the risk of a “no” vote by ISO member national standards bodies and probably create some media attention. But it is not clear whether most participants have the will to engage in a fundamental review of the text.

The second option is to address the various critiques that have been made. While there is no procedural reason to prevent a further revision of the text, the main questions would be how open-ended this would be in terms of areas revisited, how long the redrafting would take, and what the additional benefits might be at the end. Shorter might not mean better.

There is also the issue of impatience in the standards and potential user communities, where offers of training on ISO 26000 and discussion of certification options have begun in some quarters.

A big year ahead

All in all, 2010 is shaping up to be a year of reckoning generally on the corporate responsibility front.

The year was ushered in by a papal appeal for more social responsibility and ongoing sensitivity to issues of corporate accountability triggered by the global financial crisis. It already seems clear that attention on how well organisations are addressing environmental and human rights issues will be raised a notch.

This will be driven by widening recognition that – whatever happens on the economic front – things are far from well on Planet Earth. Time is running out for finding effective mechanisms to harness and focus market and societal forces.

ISO will not be alone in having to handle the raised expectations and tensions. The celebration of the 10th anniversary of the UN Global Compact, the decision to review the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, and the emergence of “own company” private standards will ensure a heightened level of corporate responsibility debate.

Paul Hohnen consults, speaks and writes on sustainability and corporate responsibility issues. Representing GRI he has been an accredited expert in the IS0 26000 process since the outset. He is a member of Ethical Corporation’s advisory board. See:

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