ISO 26000 Guidance on Social Responsibility

ISO has been developing a new standard for organizations, ISO 26000 Guidance on Social Responsibility. In principle, because it defines and applies international norms of behavior, this could be a breakthrough document for international companies. It could help a company demonstrate that it rises above the endemic corruption of the countries in which it manufactures its products. As the public becomes ever more aware of atrocities occurring around the world, a social responsibility standard feels like a great idea that can't come soon enough. The draft standard, ISO/FDIS 26000, will be discussed in May in Copenhagen and will be finalized for a vote. It could be approved as an international standard by the end of 2010.

However, the document is only a guideline. It states, "It will not include requirements and will thus not be a certification standard." Because an organization can't be certified under ISO 26000, it is effectively only a best practices guide. Even a company that diligently uses it for self-examination and prioritizing its actions must find some other way to announce its work, in order to get public credit for those actions. There's no "Look for the ISO 26000 Label" opportunity here, and probably won't be for many years.

The draft sets forth seven principles of social responsibility and seven core subjects for organizations to examine. The principles are based upon international documents such as the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. As a new lens for looking at a company's actions, it could be very revealing.

The most useful part, though, may be the appendix. Annex A contains a list of potential activities in which an organization could participate, in order to address core subjects and practices of social responsibility. (For instance, a company committed to fair trade could join the Ethical Trading Initiative.) This list, while informative and perhaps inspiring, is not exhaustive. Rather, it cross-references actions with the priorities a company might identify using ISO 26000.

As a marketing or public relations opportunity, ISO 26000 is premature. An organization for whom social responsibility is already a key principle could use the standard as a structure for self-reporting its practices and priorities. Such an organization could also use Annex A to identify a cause or movement with which to align itself; if the cause carries sufficient visibility and respect, the alignment could have positive PR effects. For most other companies, ISO 26000 is interesting, but neither serves an immediate need nor grants any special status.

In the future, building product manufacturers will want to keep an eye on certification opportunities under ISO 26000. Someday, certification will serve a need in the industry to demonstrate companies' ability to rise above the practices of the countries in which they do business. Perhaps that day can't come soon enough, but it hasn't come yet.