Rogue certification of the new sustainabilty standards has become a challenge for ISO

Rogue certification of the new sustainabilty standards has become a challenge for ISOPolicing misuse of the just-launched ISO 26000 sustainability standard is proving a headache for the International Organisation for Standardisation.

There are a number of potential problems. These include consulting firms attempting to make a quick buck by offering ISO 26000 certification, companies asking their suppliers to comply with ISO 26000 as a condition to do business, businesses trying to get favourable attention from consumers by claiming compliance with ISO 26000, and governments trying to use ISO 26000 to develop a social responsibility regulation. All of these actions are prohibited.

From the outset, the standards-setting body made it very clear that ISO 26000 was a voluntary guidance standard, not a management system. Since it is not a management system, such as ISO 9000 or ISO 14001, it is not certifiable.

The decision to make ISO 26000 a guidance standard instead of a certifiable system reflected the concerns of industry representatives not to overburden business with costly certification requirements, says Paul Hohnen, an independent sustainability consultant who participated in the ISO 26000 negotiations as a representative of the Global Reporting Initiative.

But a number of certification firms did not even wait for the final release of the ISO 26000 guidance documents and started offering ISO 26000 certification based on the draft document.

For example, Hong Kong-based certification firm Accredited Certification International started openly “awarding” ISO 26000 certification to Chinese companies and announcing their names on its website.

And in November 2010, TS Technical Services, a Swiss certification firm, was asked by the ISO central secretariat to stop offering ISO 26000 certification.

Waste of money

“Anyone tempted into buying such a service is wasting their money and risks damaging the credibility of their organisation since ISO has made it quite clear that ISO 26000 is not a certification standard,” says Robert Frost, head of communication at the ISO central secretariat in Geneva.

ISO would not reveal how many errant firms it has caught. “At this stage, ISO is more interested in stopping the practice than in naming the culprits,” Frost says.

ISO has requested that its national members report to the central secretariat any instances of ISO 26000 certificates being issued. According to Frost: “This has already resulted in a certification body withdrawing its offer of ISO 26000 certification.”

Hohnen says that if the numbers of companies seeking to certify to ISO 26000 are small, then the ISO secretariat and wider user community might provide adequate policing.

“A more difficult situation will arise if there are thousands of certification claims, and even more so if national standards bodies develop ‘son of ISO 26000’ clones which offer certification,” Hohnen cautions.

Companies, particularly small and medium-sized firms in developing countries, may view ISO 26000 certification as a convenient stamp of social responsibility. But experts say such companies may actually lose credibility – in addition to the money paid to certification firms.

“The art [of using ISO 26000 correctly] is in the careful assessment of each company’s unique situation and the making of sound strategic choices that enable it to make the most of the changes and challenges occurring around the world,” Hohnen says.

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