Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


Why ISO 26000’s ugly duckling may eventually turn into a swan

February 2009

It would be easy to adopt a sceptical position on the potential value of the ISO 26000 social responsibility standard, not least because there are so many other apparently similar guidelines and codes already in existence. If there’s one thing the corporate responsibility field has plenty of, then it’s documents of this kind.

Moreover, ISO 26000 is being created through such a frighteningly tortuous process that the whole exercise might have been designed to demonstrate the truth of the maxim that a camel is a horse designed by committee. Add in the fact that this ISO standard, unlike most others, will not lead to certification of any kind, and you’d be forgiven for wondering whether there’s much point in it at all.

However, now that four years of often fractious deliberations have produced a committee draft of ISO 26000 that actually looks and feels like the real thing (see page one), perhaps the time has arrived to kick the scepticism into touch and consider whether we might, after all, have something useful on our hands.

Certainly the draft is impressively comprehensive, covering not just the usual code areas such as workplace practices and child labour but crucial aspects of management such as how to integrate social responsibility measures throughout an organization. It’s also clearly written, relatively jargon free, and most of its guidance is couched in terms that should neither alarm the corporate sector nor unduly disappoint civil society. What’s more, it addresses itself to all bodies, not just companies – and in doing so sets down a marker for those NGOs that are happy enough to criticise business while feeling unencumbered by any expectation that they, too, should act responsibly towards their stakeholders.

But having a workable standard is one thing; ensuring its widespread take-up is another. That is where the ISO brand comes into play. If almost any other organization had drafted such a document, we might expect the response to be fitful at best. But ISO is a name to conjure with in the world of standards, and if the final document is anywhere near serviceable it’s a safe bet that many will be queueing up to use it. Publication is at least 18 months off, yet already the Kuwait National Petroleum Company has made complying with ISO 26000 a key plank of its new three-year CSR programme (see page three). Many other businesses, recognizing the high-profile that ISO standards command in other fields, will be thinking along the same lines. That means we may just have the beginnings of the overarching, global CSR standard that many have been waiting for.

Peter Mason | Global | Standards

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