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.
SocialFunds.com 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.
Socialfunds.com: What prompted ISO to address social
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.
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.
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.
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
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.