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August 03, 2004
Stakeholder Engagement, Verification, and Transparency in ISO Social Responsibility Standards: An Interview with ISO Secretary-General
    by William Baue

International Organization for Standardization Secretary-General Alan Bryden discusses these issues and more in the final installment of this three-part interview article.

In late June, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) announced its intention to launch social responsibility (SR) guidelines, a significant move for an organization best known for issuing technical and management systems standards. ISO Secretary-General Alan Bryden recently spoke with about the challenges and opportunities of the new SR initiative. Why has ISO chosen to produce a guidance document instead of certification standards? Will the guidelines be able to function as benchmarks for companies to judge their own SR performance internally and organizations such as NGOs to assess SR performance externally? Will adherence to the guidelines be verifiable/auditable?

Alan Bryden: A certification standard needs to state requirements. The report by the ISO advisory group [AG] on social responsibility and the discussions at the Stockholm conference showed that an international consensus on many basic issues has not matured among the various stakeholder groups. This is one of the reasons why ISO will be working to develop consensus on guiding principles, rather than requirements.

During the work of the advisory group, there were a number of different views expressed on the issue of third-party party certification. Some feel that third-party certification is a useful tool that has been a catalyst for improved social and environmental performance and that facilitates informed consumer choice. Others feel that there is a need to re-consider the role of third-party certification. In the event, the AG reached consensus that an SR guideline standard should exclude third-party certification and this is confirmed in the ISO resolution.

Some members of the AG felt that the unique nature of SR and related standards calls for greater verification and transparency in order to ensure credibility and public confidence, and that reporting on actual organizational performance and progress could be an important determinant of public and consumer confidence.

Be that as it may, it is rather early to begin predicting the content of the ISO standard before the terms of reference of the working group [WG] that will be set up to develop it have even been proposed and discussed, let alone agreed.

SF: How will ISO fund the SR guidelines? Are they intended to generate income?

AB: ISO has a current portfolio of 14,550 International Standards so it would make more sense for me to explain in general how the ISO system is financed.

ISO's national members pay subscriptions that meet the operational cost of ISO's Central Secretariat. The subscription paid by each member is in proportion to the country's Gross National Product and trade figures. Another source of revenue is the sale of standards. However, the operations of ISO Central Secretariat represent only about one fifth of the cost of the system's operation.

The main costs are borne by the member bodies, which manage the specific standards' development projects and the business organizations that loan experts to participate in the technical work. These organizations are, in effect, subsidizing the technical work by paying the travel costs of the experts and allowing them time to work on their ISO assignments.

So the cost of developing the SR guidelines will principally be met by the ISO member that takes on the leadership of the working group, and by the organizations that contribute experts to participate. ISO's national members will derive income from the sale of the guidelines, but as I explained, we do not develop a standard because it seems like a good idea, including for generating income, but because the market players ask ISO to do so.

While on the subject of finance, I would like to point out that ISO intends to make it easier for experts from developing countries to participate, as well as from other stakeholder categories with limited resources, such as nongovernmental organizations, consumer associations, and others. A post will be created within the working group specifically to deal with stakeholder participation, including funding.

SF: SR encompasses a very wide range of stakeholders--how will ISO manage to incorporate input from such a vast array of voices? How did ISO identify a diversity of opinions for example, companies with strong SR reputations and companies critical of SR; NGOs that support CSR and those that consider it greenwash?

AB: I've already indicated the answer to the question on incorporating input--via balanced participation, national mirror committees, and direct invitation to major players such as the ILO [International Labour Organization].

We believe that we have already showed what we can do in achieving the balanced participation--in terms of both geography and stakeholder category--that we did for the AG. It included representatives from Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Asia/Pacific as well as relevant international organizations. I provide you with a list of the organizations represented so you may judge for yourself. Basically, we put together this group by brainstorming and networking.

From there, to make sure that the AG could benefit from the various positions on SR and SR standardization, group members were encouraged to seek and share with the group the viewpoints of their respective communities, including government, nongovernmental organizations, industry, consumers and so on.

The success of the operation can be judged by the fact that the report they put together corresponded to the issues raised at the Stockholm conference. We know what the challenges are--now all we have to do is develop practical solutions!

SF: How will ISO ensure transparency?

AB: Naturally, the stakeholder groups that will provide experts to participate in the WG or in the national mirror committees will be reporting back to their constituencies as the work progresses. This is what happened already in relation to the work of the AG.

Normally, ISO documents enter the public domain from the Draft International Standard stage and many countries have a system of publishing drafts in official journals for public comment.

Public interest in the SR work can be expected to be very high so we shall be looking at additional methods, such as using the ISO Web site for communicating information on the WG. Our magazine ISO Management Systems will be covering the work and its September-October issue includes both a report of the Stockholm conference and an article by Dan Gagnier, who chaired the AG.

Last but not least, I shall continue to be responsive to the many requests we receive from the media for interviews on this subject, like this one from I thank you for your interest and hope I have done justice to your comprehensive set of questions for the benefit of visitors to your Web site.

Part one of this three-part interview article addresses the history and implications of ISO's new social responsibility standards; part two presents the distinctions between ISO technical standards and social responsibility guidelines.


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