Taking Responsibility

How ISO 26000 can help ensure a sustainable future

by Sandford Liebesman

Social responsibility (SR) and sustainability are issues that have gotten the attention of most countries around the world. Al Gore’s book and documentary, both titled An Inconvenient Truth, identified major problems involving global warming. The recent United Nations (U.N.) Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen illustrated how difficult it can be for countries around the world to create a global fix for the issue.

Currently, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Technical Management Board Working Group on Social Responsibility is hard at work developing ISO 26000—Guidance on social responsibility, which has recently been published as a draft international standard and is scheduled to be finalized in late 2010.1

But before I get to that, I would like to describe my own experiences with sustainability issues for the last three years, beginning when I supported an effort by Social Accountability International (SAI) to develop auditor training for SA8000, a certification standard.

More recently, I attended a sustainability conference at Fordham University, breakfast presentations sponsored by the Institute for Sustainable Enterprise at Fairleigh Dickinson University and an ASQ webinar on SR. I also read two excellent books describing sustainability as an opportunity for businesses improvement.2,3

The conference at Fordham was sponsored by the ASQ New York/New Jersey Metropolitan Section 300 and was conducted by two Fordham professors, James A.F. Stoner and Frank M. Weiner, who identified sustainability’s major issues as environmental, economic and social.

Some of the environmental issues discussed were the depletion of rain forests and the polar ice caps, hunger and global water shortages. Economic issues included poverty (more than 3 billion people live on less than $2 per day) and the large amount of money spent on weapons rather than helping the poorest countries and their starving people. Finally, they pointed out the lack of schooling for 20% of the world’s children, 30 ongoing wars and the expected population explosion from 6.5 billion to 9.1 billion by 2050.

ASQ is active in this arena, most prominently with its initiative to support SR development (http://thesro.org). It is also the administrator of the U.S. Technical Advisory Group for development of ISO 26000.

It’s important to note ISO 26000 is not a management system standard and is not intended or appropriate for certification, regulatory or contractual use. It contains these sections: terms and definitions, understanding SR, principles of SR, recognizing SR and engaging stakeholders, guidance on SR core subjects and guidance on integrating SR throughout an organization.4

Digging into ISO 26000

Clause 4 states an organization should be accountable for its actions and transparent in its decisions and activities that impact society and the environment. Actions should be based on honesty, equity and integrity. Other principles covered in this section are respect for stakeholder interests, the rule of law, international norms of behavior and human rights.

Stakeholders consist of "respective owners, members, customers or constituents and other individuals or groups that may also have rights, claims or specific interests." The standard states that "organizations should base their behavior on standards, guidelines or rules of conduct that are in accordance with accepted principles of right or good conduct in the context of specific situations, even when these are challenging."

Clause 5 states that an organization should understand relationships between the organization and society, the organization and its stakeholders, and the stakeholders and society.

The standard suggests asking the following questions when identifying stakeholders:

  • To whom do legal obligations belong?
  • Who might be positively or negatively affected by the organization’s decisions or activities?
  • Who has been involved in the past when similar concerns needed to be addressed?
  • Who can help the organization address specific issues?
  • Who would be disadvantaged if they are excluded from an activity?
  • Who in the value chain is affected?

Stakeholder engagement involves dialogue informing stakeholders of the basis of the organization’s decisions. Interaction with stakeholders can help an organization understand the impact of its decisions, review its performance so it can improve, reconcile conflicts and link the stakeholders, organization and society at large. There are many other benefits of engagement, but the biggest benefit is to achieve mutually positive goals.

Getting to the core

Clause 6, "Guidance on Social Responsibility Core Subjects," is the heart of the standard and includes seven core subjects: organizational governance, human rights, labor practices, the environment, fair operating practices, consumer issues, and community involvement and development.

The key issues covered in this clause are economic issues, health and safety, the value chain, and the differing views of men and women. This clause can be used by an organization to start its SR compliance effort.

  1. Organizational governance: The system by which decisions are made and implemented in pursuit of the organization’s objectives. How an organization approaches this subject depends on its size and type, and "the environmental, economic, political, cultural and social context in which it operates."

    The organization needs to provide incentives related to SR, use resources efficiently, provide fair representation of all groups, balance the needs of all stakeholders, establish communication with all stakeholders, encourage participation and balance in SR decision making, keep track of the results of decisions, and ensure accountability and periodic review.

  2. Human rights: Based on civil and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights; and the idea that human rights transcend laws or cultural traditions. The standard covers eight human rights:

    • Due diligence.
    • Human rights risk situations.
    • Avoidance of complicity.
    • Resolving grievances.
    • Discrimination and vulnerable groups.
    • Civil and political rights.
    • Economic, social and cultural rights.
    • Fundamental rights at work.
  3. Labor practices: Includes the recruitment and promotion of workers; disciplinary and grievance procedures; the transfer and relocation of workers; termination of employment; training and skills development; health, safety and industrial hygiene; and any policy or practice affecting conditions of work. This core subject also includes the recognition of worker organizations, collective bargaining and methods of addressing social issues.
  4. The environment: States that an organization needs to consider the economic, social and environmental implications of its decisions and activities. Key concerns are prevention of pollution, sustainable use of resources, mitigation of climate change, and protection and restoration of the natural environment.
  5. Fair operating practices: Concerned with ethical conduct when dealing with other organizations and individuals. It includes anti-corruption, responsible political involvement, fair competition, promoting SR in its sphere of influence and respect for property rights.
  6. Consumer issues: Closely related to fair operating practices. Responsibilities include:

    • Fair marketing, information and contractual practices.
    • Protecting
    • Sustainable consumption.
    • Consumer service, support and dispute resolution.
    • Consumer data protection and privacy.
    • Access to essential services.
    • Education and awareness.
  7. Community involvement: Contributions—individually or through associations—to help strengthen civil society and its institutions, and to reinforce democratic and civic values. The standard cites the eight U.N. Millennium Development Goals5:

    1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
    2. Achieve universal primary education.
    3. Promote gender equality and empower women.
    4. Reduce child mortality.
    5. Improve maternal health.
    6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
    7. Ensure environmental sustainability.
    8. Develop a global partnership for development.

    The standard also cites community involvement, education and culture, employment creation and skills development, technology development and access, wealth and income creation, health and social investment.

Guidance on integrating SR

Clause 7, the last section, provides implementation guidance. Organizations should be able to build on existing structures, policies, documentation and compliance to other standards. ISO 9001 is a good starting point for satisfying most of the core subjects, and ISO 14001 can form the basis for managing the impact of the environment. An organization should start by analyzing its key characteristics with respect to SR:

  • Type, purpose, nature of operations and size.
  • Operating locations, including the legal framework that regulates many of the activities related to SR.
  • Social, environmental and economic characteristics of the areas of operation.
  • Characteristics of the workforce or employees.
  • Contracted labor sector organizations and associated social responsibilities.
  • Concerns of stakeholders relevant to SR.
  • The nature of decision making in the organization and its value chain.

The standard suggests the following implementation activities:

  • Understand an organization’s social responsibilities.
  • Build practices for integrating SR throughout the organization.
  • Communicate the responsibilities needed to implement the program.
  • Enhance the credibility of SR.
  • Review and improve the organization’s actions and practices.
  • Develop voluntary initiatives to help other organizations.

The standard provides extensive, detailed guidance on implementation. Annex A describes examples of voluntary initiatives and tools that may be of value. There are also examples of initiatives identified by the team that developed the standard.

Staying alive

The biggest environmental issue facing world leaders is sustainability. I’ve heard suggestions that we should call it "survivability." Many organizations, including ISO, ASQ and various universities, are taking the first steps toward a solution it is hoped will provide our grandchildren and their grandchildren with a world similar to ours.

The solution to survivability is daunting because of the great number of problems facing us today. Global warming will affect plant and animal life in the near future, half the world deals with food and water shortages, an enormous population boom will exacerbate the existing problems, and conflicts around the globe take resources away from the efforts to solve the problems in front of us.

ISO is making its first entry into the sustainability arena with ISO 26000. The standard is broad and conveys a great deal of background information, but it’s not the only way to join the sustainability effort. To find out more, visit http://thesro.org and learn what you can do to help.

References and notes

  1. International Organization for Standardization, "Future ISO 26000 standard on social responsibility published as Draft International Standard," www.iso.org/iso/pressrelease.htm?refid=Ref1245, Sept. 14, 2009.
  2. Auden Schendler, Getting Green Done, Public Affairs, 2009.
  3. Ray C. Anderson, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, St. Martin’s Press, 2009.
  4. For more information on ISO 26000, visit www.asq.org/standards/standards-and-social-responsibility.
  5. The United Nations, "The United Nations Millennium Declaration," General Assembly resolution of Sept. 8, 2000.

Sandford Liebesman is president of Sandford Quality Consulting in Morristown, NJ, following more than 30 years of experience in quality at Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies and Bellcore (Telcordia). He is an author of TL 9000, Release 3.0: A Guide to Measuring Excellence in Telecommunications, second edition, and Using ISO 9000 to Improve Business Processes. Liebesman, a fellow of ASQ and chairman of the Electronics and Communications Division, is a member of ISO technical committee 176 and the ANSI Z-1 committee on quality assurance. He is an experienced ISO 9001 and TL 9000 lead auditor, having led or participated in more than 95 audits.

Average Rating


Out of 0 Ratings
Rate this article

Add Comments

View comments
Comments FAQ

Featured advertisers