The New Standard for Social Responsibility

ISO has recently launched the most eagerly awaited ISO International Standards of recent years, ISO 26000:2010, Guidance on social responsibility. The document aims to bring together the current multitude of CR/sustainability standards and will assist companies in better managing their sustainability performance.

We are entering an era where corporate social responsibility (CSR) is of central concern to executives of almost every enterprise. The importance of documenting and managing CSR practices becomes eminently clear when we consider the tragedy surrounding the 2010 explosion of the BP Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig. BP is the latest example of how social responsibility is of critical importance to an enterprise from not only the standpoint of public perception, but for protecting the interests of investors and other stakeholders.

The new ISO 26000 standard comes at a time when businesses are being judged on anything from their e-waste disposal and safety standards to their carbon emissions.

According to the ISO, ISO 26000 provides guidance for all types of organisation, regardless of their size or location, on:

Concepts, terms and definitions related to social responsibility

Background, trends and characteristics of social responsibility

Principles and practices relating to social responsibility

Core subjects and issues of social responsibility

Integrating, implementing and promoting socially responsible behavior throughout the organization and, through its policies and practices, within its sphere of influence

Identifying and engaging with stakeholders

Communicating commitments, performance and other information related to social responsibility.

ISO 26000 is unique, mainly because it is a form of guidance and not a certification standard like the more well-known ISO 9001 quality management and 14001 environmental management standards. That may be part of its weakness. Many skeptics believe that ISO 26000 will not suddenly replace all corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives in an organisation’s Supply Chain. However, it does attempt to harmonize UN Global Compact guidelines for ethical business practices and a number of existing practices, principles and guidelines devoted to social responsibility such as the Global Reporting Initiative.

By adopting the ISO 26000 approach and operating in a socially responsible manner, companies can demonstrate to their stakeholders and their consumers their commitment to making real differences in their business practices, thus increasing their competitiveness and building their reputation.

Six years in the making, ISO 26000 is unique and reflects a pragmatic response to the contested nature and scope of CSR. The six core areas of ISO 26000 embrace potentially key issues: Human rights, labour practices, the environment, fair operating practices, consumer issues, and community involvement and development.

Dominique Gangneux is a Partner at ERM, a leading global provider of environmental, health and safety, risk, and social consulting services and comments on the effects that ISO26000 could have on businesses:

“ISO 26000 brings three key benefits to the field of sustainability. It confirms the meaning of many concepts and terms; it establishes bridges between the multitudes of existing standards; and it will raise awareness of many more organisations around the world on the meaning and value of good sustainability performance. On one side it makes it easier for individuals from diverse backgrounds to access this field, on the other it will probably lead companies to appoint people into new sustainability officer roles to effectively drive practice and performance improvement and reap the business benefits of sustainability.”

We should also not exclude the possibility that ISO 26000 may evolve into a certification standard over time. As such, it is crucial for companies to be mindful of CSR concerns in doing business. For companies looking to adopt ISO 26000, it really will require what CSR practitioners and consultants have been wanting all along, embedding CSR into the organization and making it part of its core business strategy, rather than an add on.

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