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Defining Social Responsibility

Standard helps clarify a nebulous term

Social Responsibility (SR) has entered our modern-day lexicon and everyday practice, particularly in the corporate arena. Organizations worldwide espouse their social and environmental awareness and advocacy efforts, but the brush is very broad in terms of a unifying definition. The question remains, what does it really mean to be socially responsible?

A decade ago, social responsibility was widely understood to mean green: Less toxic alternatives, less pollution, reduced emissions and scaled-back energy usage. At the same time, the term also carried negative connotations among members of the business community—corporate America feared the financial repercussions associated with increased regulation.

In the past few years, there has been an undeniable shift in many of these views. SR has gone mainstream. But even with the flood of initiatives and efforts by many of the world’s largest and most respected companies, a clear, overarching definition remains elusive. That’s where ISO 26000, the voluntary standard being developed by the International Organization for Standardization, comes in. Its development within the United States is being administered by ASQ; the standard is scheduled for a 2010 release. (Learn more about ASQ’s SR efforts at www.asq.org/social-responsibility.)

The draft standard says it best: “As varying interpretations of social responsibility exist, an internationally accepted standard may be of benefit in helping to achieve a common perspective and understanding about the principles and practices of social responsibility. The aim of social responsibility is to contribute to sustainable development and the welfare of society.”

The standard details seven core issues at the heart of social responsibility: organizational governance, human rights, labor practices, the environment, fair operating practices, consumer issues, and contribution to community and society.

Denis Leonard points to the standard’s development as strong evidence that SR is here to stay in this month’s article, “Strong Foundation, Solid Future,” p. 30. His article contends that the movement is not only alive and well, but will become even more widely accepted and embraced.

Ethical behavior is one facet of socially responsible practices, and it’s the subject of this month’s cover story, “A Framework for Business Ethics,” p. 22. According to the article’s author, operating a business ethically can have a secondary benefit—greater profits. This realization—that SR can be achieved through quality, inevitably producing happier customers and healthier businesses—may further spur the already strong SR movement.

Seiche Sanders

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