July 30, 2004
ISO and Social Responsibility--A Closer Fit Than You Might Think: An Interview with ISO Secretary-General
by William Baue
International Organization for Standardization Secretary-General Alan Bryden discusses divergences
and convergences of ISO technical standards with social responsibility guidelines (part two of a
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is considered the gold standard in
standard-setting for everything from the dimensions of screw threads to the width of wheel chairs.
For more than a half-century, ISO's expertise has focused predominantly on technical
specifications, but more recently it extended its reach to cover management systems, including
those dealing with the environment. ISO's announcement late last month of its intention to extend
even further by establishing guidelines for social responsibility (SR) represents a foray into a
realm governed less by objective measurements and more by subjective judgments.
Secretary-General Alan Bryden recently spoke with SocialFunds.com about how well ISO's
standard-setting expertise fits with the task of establishing benchmarks for social responsibility.
Socialfunds.com: An advisory group to the ISO noted that social responsibility is
"qualitatively different from the subjects and issues that have traditionally been dealt with by
ISO". How does SR differ, and how is it similar to the issues and subjects ISO traditionally deals
Alan Bryden: Firstly, let's look at what is different. Many ISO standards are
highly specific. They are documented agreements containing technical specifications or other
precise criteria to be used consistently as rules, guidelines, or definitions of characteristics to
ensure that materials, products, processes, and services are fit for their purpose. Standards on
screw threads certainly appear a long way from a standard for social responsibility that gives
guidelines for organizational behavior!
One of the conclusions of the advisory group was
that there would be a fundamental difference between dealing with social issues and dealing with
technical issues, as ISO has predominantly done. Society deals with the social behavior of business
not through social performance requirements, but through regulation, corporate governance, freedom
of speech, the competitive market-place, and collective bargaining--areas for which ISO is not
experienced in developing standards.
However, an evolution in ISO's portfolio has been
going on for some years already. In addition to very specific engineering standards, we also
develop horizontal business standards that offer benefits to many different sectors, such as our
standards for management systems, risk management terminology, and complaints handling for
In fact, if we shift the perspective from looking at what is different to
looking at what is similar, then we begin to perceive that ISO has never been an organization
developing purely technical standards. Even if the content is usually technical, the impetus for
the development of a standard and the outcome sought through its implementation mean that ISO
standards also have a social dimension and that, in fact, ISO has more experience in dealing with
values than might first be apparent if you concentrate solely on looking for what is different.
The ISO standardization system takes values like efficiency, effectiveness, economy,
quality, ecology, safety, reliability, compatibility, and interoperability, and transforms them
into specific, concrete, and practical characteristics of products and services for implementation
in their manufacture, supply, or utilization. The resulting International Standards may be
technical in content, but the stimulus for their development is to make it possible to implement a
value and the outcome of their use may be related to health, safety, the environment, and economic
development. Therefore, ISO has a long experience of providing workable solutions to value-based
challenges faced by business, government, and society.
Our standards-developing processes
are such that if we can convene the expert resources needed for the job, we can take on any new
challenge--including the challenge to improve our own processes.
The ISO 9000 and ISO
14000 standards provide striking examples ISO's ability to face new challenges very successfully.
For many years, ISO technical specification standards were used for end-of-the-production-line
quality control. Then ISO allowed quality to be built in from development onwards by developing its
ISO 9000 quality management standards. In the environmental field, ISO has developed hundreds of
standards for specific uses such as testing water, soil, and air quality. With the ISO 14000
series, ISO has added the holistic tool of environmental management to help organizations meet
their challenges in this area.
These examples show that the ISO system can successfully
engage the experts and organizations necessary to develop the standard required. As far as SR is
concerned, we are developing and weighing up options. One way would be for the working group (WG)
on SR to be composed of experts nominated by the national standards institutes that make up ISO's
membership. Each ISO member body that wishes to take a part would also be encouraged to establish a
"mirror committee" with a well-balanced membership including business, labor, and the other
stakeholders to advise the experts nominated to the WG on national issues.
to this work will be also be extended to international or broadly-based regional organizations,
such as ILO [International Labour Organization],
the Global Compact,
GRI [Global Reporting Initiative],
the OECD [Organisation for Economic
Co-operation and Development], and Consumers International.
In part one
of this three-part article, Mr. Bryden discusses the history and implications of ISO's new social
responsibility standards; in part three, he addresses
stakeholder engagement, benchmarking, auditing, and transparency in the SR standards.