The case of ISO 26000 -- Standards only represent best practice at the time of their launch but ISO 26000 is still proving influential
Standards for sustainability and CSR are the result of two opposing forces: the good and the better. This is because, while they are based on good practice, this can inhibit even better practice that goes beyond the criteria set out. Also, there are so many standards for so many different aspects of sustainability that it is not clear what difference yet another one can make.
So how are we to assess ISO 26000, a standard for social responsibility produced by the International Standards Organisation which was published in 2010?
Historically ISO has mainly produced standards on more technical and mundane matters, such as specifications for tomato-growing frames and quality management. By facilitating those areas in which there is little competition and more to be gained by co-operation, ISO standards have achieved very widespread use and considerable respect from industry.
The ISO 14001 on environmental management has been hugely influential, but social responsibility still represented a major departure for ISO when it was first suggested in 2002.
ISO 26000, on the other hand, was developed in a participative way by a wide variety of different interests. The working group members were drawn from about 80 countries and international organisations such as Consumers International and the International Organisation of Employers. To ensure consistency, ISO has also entered special agreements with the ILO, the Global Compact, the GRI and the OECD. As a result, ISO 26000 is probably the most inclusive sustainability standard in regards to the issues it covers.
These range from environmental issues and the use of the precautionary principle, to organisational governance. In between, the standard directly addresses human and labour rights as well as corruption, fair competition and consumer concerns.
The environmental section not only addresses the precautionary approach and environmental risk management, but is also concerned with the promotion of substantive performance, directly applicable to companies, in the areas of sustainable procurement, the adoption of environmentally sound technologies and control of climate change impacts. The standard also makes use of the concept of 'sphere of influence', since it is both intuitive and productive in areas of responsibility that are not addressed in law.
ISO 26000 is also intended for any sort of organisation: large or small, for companies from any industry, for the public sector and for the third sector. While there is some disagreement about how successfully it has met the needs of smaller organisations, it is perhaps its applicability to the public sector that is most interesting.
From a human rights perspective one important implication is that the standard is designed to be applicable to governments – although the standard is not intended to 'alter or in any way change the obligations of the state'.
The standard represents an impressive consensus, with the exception of the five votes against it, including those from India and the US, both of whom were apprehensive that it might form a barrier to trade..
One issue that was contentious at the beginning, and remains to this day, is its non-certifiable nature. It is a guidance standard, meant only to embody good advice. But companies like to have evidence of their good performance. As a result there is continuing pressure to develop a certifiable version of the standard. While ISO itself has not done this, nearly a dozen national standards bodies (the ISO membership) around the world have done it, including China, which had reservations about the human rights perspective.
Yet, as with many standards, the process of discussion that led up to the launch of ISO 26000 may turn out to be the most productive part of its life cycle. This is because, although a standard represents best practice when it is launched, it operates as a fixed ethical point that lags increasingly behind leading thinking as time passes.
ISO 26000 is being, and should be taken seriously.
Whatever its shortcomings it is a powerful statement of the moral and practical issues facing companies and other organisations. In developing countries, where there are numerous standards and initiatives, it will be particularly influential as companies seek to address their wider responsibilities, perhaps for the first time.
Adrian Henriques is chair of the UK Committee on ISO 26000 and also visiting professor of accountability and CSR at Middlesex University Business School. He is the editor of 'Understanding ISO 26000 – a practical approach to social responsibility