Thursday, 27 August 2009

ISO 26000... the bite behind the bark

CI's Ruth Golding attended the seventh ISO working group meeting on corporate social responsibility held in Quebec, Canada at the end of May 2009. She writes:

'Arriving in Quebec City for a week of negotiations on social responsibility, I was acutely aware that I was coming into a dialogue more than half way through the discussion. ISO 26000 has been evolving for five years and this was the seventh round of negotiations.

CI has been involved in ISO 26000 right from the beginning. In fact we even sat on the working group in ISO COPOLCO that started the process rolling by suggesting that ISO develop a standard on social responsibility. It was fascinating and motivating to see how something that had started as an aspiration had taken on a life of its own and is now set to become a detailed guiding document that will be synonymous with social responsibility.

But I was also arriving with a healthy dose of scepticism as to the merits of this voluntary guidance standard which seemed at first all bark and no bite. But I soon began to see how valuable it can be.

Without the weight of certification hanging over discussion, sensible consensus seemed easier to reach. Of course everyone comes with their own agendas, but discussion seemed less deeply politicised than it would be in the context of a binding international instrument, making genuine engagement possible. Representatives from all key sectors were able, in the context of relatively open discussion, to compare notes and to put their minds to the practical challenges that SR raises; How does social responsibility apply to small businesses? What can you do in practice to ensure your social responsibility as you head further down the supply chain?

Consumer groups, unionists and industry, governments and NGOs worked together in surprising harmony (apparently it wasn’t quite the same story five years ago!) and once again moved towards consensus on a final Standard. In the ISO 26000 context, all of these voices are given equal weighting which makes engagement more attractive from the off, especially for underrepresented groups.

In fact a large number of the people involved in ISO 26000’s development have been working together on the document for years. Meeting every six to nine months to negotiate in plenaries, smaller meetings, and informally over coffee, and dinner. They have come from different perspectives and interests but have gradually built up trust and got to better understand each others’ positions.

This multi-stakeholder process is unique to ISO 26000, meaning that fresh procedures have had to be developed to reflect the equal status of all experts. Within a working group on any given issue, each stakeholder group is represented and in contrast to traditional processes, where negotiations are by country, there is greater transparency around exactly whose interests are being represented when a point is made.

CI has been instrumental in developing the process and to ensuring it is adhered to and understood. Having secured the multi-stakeholder aspect of the process, CI has strived to make sure it works. Even at the seventh round of negotiations, challenges were still apparent. The processes that have been established seemed for the most part to work well but what is critical is that they are followed. Speakers didn’t always make it clear when they spoke to represent the agreed position of their country or stakeholder group and when they spoke as individuals. Other times a failure to reach consensus within stakeholder groups was clouded over when presenting back in plenary. Overall though and where process was followed, the value of multiple viewpoints for creating a rounded and well-informed Standard was striking.

But it isn’t just the process side that gives ISO 26000 added value. The Standard, once complete, will have potential ‘bottom-up’ uses that regulation cannot yet offer. Stakeholders within business and consumer organisations will be able to make assessments using a transparent harmonised approach, whether business is national or trans-national. Businesses who want to become socially responsible will have a footprint to follow when operationalising their strategies and future plans, and will be able to benchmark their progress by comparing reports with other institutions. Of course regulation at both national and international levels is critical for the substantial culture shift that we need to see in social responsibility, but ISO 26000’s bite is in its potential to reach places regulation can’t.

The Standard has the potential to be a powerful document. It has meaningful content with practical solutions which will allow it to be used for a wide range of purposes, alongside legislation, in the road to substantial improvements in social responsibility to meet consumer concerns. It was clear that international consensus was building. But the process side will still be key to assuring a credible and acceptable final Standard. CI will be watching to make sure that that is exactly what we get.'

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