The private, Geneva-headquartered International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) claims to be organised on democratic lines. This is because it works on a “one member one vote” basis among the national standards bodies that are its members. But some governments now fear that ISO is encroaching on their territory – democratically or otherwise.

The focus for these concerns is a proposed new international guidance standard on social responsibility – ISO 26000.

On Monday 18 May, participants in an ISO 26000 international working group meet for a week of talks in Quebec to hammer out agreement on key outstanding issues. Participants come from business, trade unions, non-governmental organisations and governments. A total of 91 countries are represented.

China is one government that is very worried about the way ISO 26000 has shaped up since working group discussions began in 2005. Earlier this year China mobilised its embassies around the world to try to convince national standards bodies to block a proposal to take the text to the next stage, a Draft International Standard, after the Quebec meeting. China was unsuccessful, with roughly two-thirds of national delegations voting to move on.

Broad guidance

ISO’s planned social responsibility standard sets out wide-ranging guidance for all kinds of organisations. It covers issues from human rights and environment to community development and fair operating practices; all areas where governments have a great deal to say.

The proposed standard builds on the familiar idea of corporate social responsibility. But its central theme – “organisational social responsibility” – is new. The overall aim is to contribute to sustainable development.

ISO’s brand recognition and credibility give it potential to make a positive contribution to social responsibility. ISO standards are voluntary, but they frequently become benchmarks for good practice among businesses. They are often referenced in supply chain requirements. And many are absorbed into national regulations and standards.

Done well, ISO 26000 could drive competition among organisations for better social responsibility performance. Done badly, it could inadvertently further the global squeeze on small producers unable to meet the aspirations of its guidance.

An ISO social responsibility standard could matter very much. But if organisations consider it irrelevant or obtuse, it might not turn out to matter at all.

More than voluntary

ISO cannot legislate. But its standards are often a baseline for regulation at national level.

For example, an agreement between members of the World Trade Organization requires them in principle to use “relevant international standards” as a basis for many product laws. This means that if ISO guidance on social responsibility were considered “relevant” in a WTO dispute, it could effectively be forced on policymakers.

The US has spotted the issue and in September last year it brought the Office of its Trade Representative into ISO 26000 negotiations in Chile. So far the challenges of explaining the legal risk coupled with scepticism over its motivations have hampered US efforts to gain support for explicit WTO-proofing language.

It remains to be seen whether the new US administration gets further in Quebec. It may do: other countries including Peru and Canada as well as a number of non-governmental organisations have become more vocal in their concerns since the Chile meeting.

At the same meeting, the US also expressed concern that by using language from government commitments in the social responsibility standard, the resulting ISO guidance could distort international law.

China, along with some other countries – Belarus for example – is uncomfortable that participants in the ISO 26000 process are lifting language from intergovernmental agreements in areas such as human rights, labour and environmental protection.

Global norms

Most controversial is a proposal for text outlining a globally applicable set of minimum norms for organisational behaviour and setting a principle on how these should be applied.

Most ISO 26000 participants believe this is necessary for the standard to reflect good practice in social responsibility. However, since the norms currently proposed draw on international laws in areas such as labour, environment and human rights, the guidance is threatening to countries whose national laws differ.

Not all government participants are fearful. Some see opportunities to boost markets for green products. A few government experts, such as Sweden’s, work on sustainable development at city level or by integrating social responsibility into public procurement. For them, there is less to object to in the idea that the standard might directly inform government policy-making on social responsibility.

ISO plans to finalise the social responsibility standard in 2010. Once it is unleashed in the marketplace, it matters little what individual governments think of it: if it is adopted then like it or not, their economies will live with its effects.

Walking away from ISO 26000 is not a realistic option for governments. At the same time intergovernmental diplomacy is a clumsy lobbying tool for engaging with diverse non-governmental interests around the world.

Ultimately it is organisations in the marketplace, not governments, that will decide the outcome of ISO 26000’s tension between leadership by stakeholders and political leadership by governments.

Halina Ward is Director of The Environment Foundation, where she works on links between democracy and sustainable development. She has been representing the International Institute for Environment and Development in the ISO 26000 process.