Will a standard for social responsibility make any difference?

Over the past twenty years non-governmental organisations have shown increasing interest in setting standards with an overt agenda for social or environmental change. Fairtrade, for example, aims to give producers fair access to markets under better trade conditions while the Forest Stewardship Council aims to promote the responsible management of the world’s forests.

Adrian Henriques's picture
Insight by 
Adrian Henriques
11 April 2012

But mainstream businesses have worked with standards for a long time – today's International Standards Organisation (ISO) has its origins nearly 100 years ago in 1926. ISO standards are mostly very technical and concern matters like the size of petrol nozzles for filling cars or the dimensions of credit cards. Without them the world would be a rather chaotic place – but they are generally not  of interest to NGOs or relevant to sustainable development.

ISO 26000, which is an ISO standard for the social responsibility of any type of organisation is different. The standard defines organisational responsibility through how an organisation manages itself and through an extensive list of issues that should be considered. This list includes the environment, human rights and labour rights, as well as other crucial matters, like organisational governance and corruption.

There are of course some important ISO standards for environmental management (the ISO 14000 series), but ISO 26000 is the first time that ISO has produced something directly relevant to sustainable development. Given the huge and worldwide reach of ISO and the wide awareness that will come almost automatically, the key question must be: how much difference can this standard make to sustainable development?

My recently published book Standards for change aims to answer this question. At first glance, ISO 26000 looks promising. It was developed through a large, broadly legitimate and determinedly inclusive process that involved over 600 people living in places that spanned the globe. The working group meetings had more representation from the developing world than the developed world – including people from Nigeria, Honduras, Argentina, Bahrain, Malawi, India, China and the West. It also included representation from business, NGOs and the labour movement.

ISO 26000 has already influenced the European Commission; its recent re-definition of corporate social responsibility (CSR) echoes the ISO definition and, as a result, has a much broader scope than the old one. And ISO 26000 is being referenced by companies across the world.

However it’s hard to say exactly how great the take up of ISO 26000 has been because it’s not a certifiable standard, so there is no official proof of compliance. That has led to some criticism, as has the fact that it does not provide a formal approach to management, unlike, say, ISO 14001.

The impact of a standard may be 'soft' as well as 'hard'. Soft impacts include effects on culture and values. For example, it could lead to discussions on how corporate responsibility is defined or what is considered legitimate to discuss in the Board room. These in turn may give rise to harder impacts in the longer term, including better social and environmental performance as the standards will legitimise the consideration of a wider set of issues by mainstream business.

ISO 26000 has already raised awareness through the inclusive methodology used to develop it, which built legitimacy with the stakeholders involved, and which will likely influence the way ISO tackles standards in the future in order to include a broader set of stakeholders.  

Yet it is too early to say how extensive the influence of ISO 26000 will be. And of course, the challenges of sustainable development are constantly changing. So ISO 26000 will also need to be continually adapted to keep pace with progress.

Read Standards for change

Adrian Henriques is the author of Standards for Change and Visiting Professor of CSR and Accountability at Middlesex University. He is also Chair of the UK Committee on ISO 26000.