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July 29, 2004
Answering the Market Call for Social Responsibility Standards: An Interview with ISO Secretary-General
    by William Baue

International Organization for Standardization Secretary-General Alan Bryden discusses the history and implications of ISO's new social responsibility standards (part one of a three-part article).

Late last month, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), a Geneva-based global standard-setting nongovernmental organization (NGO), announced its intention to launch international standards for social responsibility (SR). So clear was the need for such standards, based on the recommendation of the Advisory Group resolution presented at the ISO Social Responsibility Conference in Stockholm, that ISO waived a feasibility study in favor of beginning work on SR standards immediately. As a first step, a newly-formed working group will propose the terms of reference and operating processes to ISO's Technical Management Board in September. recently spoke with ISO Secretary-General Alan Bryden about the history behind this development and the implications of a respected organization such as ISO issuing guidance on social responsibility. What prompted ISO to address social responsibility?

Alan Bryden: "Social responsibility," "corporate social responsibility," "corporate governance," "business ethics," and just plain ethics have in the last few years become part of the air we breathe due to a continuing series of well-publicized scandals over breakdowns in management and moral behavior.

However, ISO, which is a nongovernmental organization whose standards are voluntary, does not just decide to develop a standard because it seems like a good idea. There has to a clearly articulated requirement from the market for ISO to launch new standards because we depend on the sectors and stakeholders that will ultimately implement them or be affected by them to provide the expert resources needed to develop them.

Today, there is widespread concern among many stakeholder groups, including governments, nongovernmental organizations, consumers, labor unions, and the public at large that organizations should respect the social, economic, and environmental dimensions that make up sustainable development, and behave in an ethical manner.

ISO's decision has been taken against the background of a general recognition that SR is an integral part of sustainability. This recognition was already articulated at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit on the environment, which actually focused on a broader set of issues, including poverty reduction and social development. As more and more organizations decide that they must address the principles of SR, there is a growing need for tools to help them implement SR practice.

Against this background, the ISO Committee on Consumer Policy (COPOLCO) decided in May 2001 to consider the viability of International Standards on what was then referred to as "corporate social responsibility." Through several of its regular meetings and through a special workshop in Trinidad and Tobago in June 2002, COPOLCO reached the conclusion that, from the perspective of the consumer, ISO as an organization is well positioned to take the leadership on the development of SR standards. COPOLCO also submitted a recommendation to ISO Council that ISO establish an advisory group involving all stakeholders to investigate the issue.

ISO set up an advisory group (AG) on social responsibility in early 2003 to help it decide whether an eventual involvement in SR by ISO would add any value to already existing initiatives and programs. The group comprised representatives from around the world of a wide spectrum of stakeholder interests including business, government, labor, consumers and nongovernmental organizations. Over 18 months of intensive work, the group developed an extensive report including an overview of SR initiatives worldwide identifying issues that should be taken into account by ISO. It concluded that ISO should go ahead with work on SR on condition that a set of key recommendations be met.

The group's work provided the major focus for the ISO conference on social responsibility held in Stockholm, Sweden, on 21-22 June 2004 to provide further input for ISO's decision. The conference was attended by 355 participants from 66 countries, representing all the major stakeholder groups. The issues and challenges raised were remarkably in alignment with those identified in the AG's report. Together with the strong consensus expressed at the conference that ISO should undertake SR work, this gave us a solid basis for taking a positive decision.

SF: In what ways does ISO's decision to address social responsibility legitimize SR as a significant and serious business consideration?

AB: The concerns of a broad base of stakeholder groups have made social responsibility a legitimate business concern long before the involvement of ISO. What ISO's contribution will do is to encourage implementation of the good work already accomplished by the development of guidelines based on international consensus by all stakeholder groups.

Part two of this three-part article presents the distinctions between ISO technical standards and social responsibility guidelines; part three addresses stakeholder engagement, benchmarking, auditing, and transparency in the SR standards.


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