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ISO Secretary-General's perspectives on ISO 26000

by Rob Steele & Elodie Fournet on
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Rob Steele interviewed Elodie Fournet

Shortly before approval of ISO 26000 for publication as an International Standard, ISO Secretary-General Rob Steele was interviewed on the subject by French freelance print and TV journalist Elodie Fournet, whose experience includes eight years as a Paris correspondent of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF).

Elodie Fournet: At the meeting in Copenhagen in May when ISO 26000 was approved for release as a Final Draft International Standard, 400 experts and observers stood up and applauded, and more than a few are reported to have been in tears. Most people wouldn't associate the development of an ISO standard with such an outbreak of emotion. What was its significance and just why is ISO 26000 such an eagerly awaited standard around the world?

Rob Steele: One of the key things about that meeting was that it was the combination of almost five years of very hard work by a very large group of people who came together to discuss one of the biggest subjects that ISO has ever dealt with. Seeing that the standard and all of their hard work was about to bear fruit generated a lot of emotion. The emotion was also due to the fact that the subject of the standard, social responsibility, is a very emotional one for many people and some areas addressed by the standard are quite controversial. So, over the five years that the standard was developed, people who were initially total strangers to each other became friends, interacted with each other and worked together to achieve something that no one of them could have done alone, but could as part of this group. I think that these factors explain why it was a very emotional moment.

Elodie Fournet: It has been reported that the ISO Working Group on Social Responsibility, which was formed to develop ISO 26000, is the largest in ISO's history. Can you provide some details?

Rob Steele: That's absolutely right, around 400 experts from across 99 countries were eventually involved in the working group. Just imagine 400 people in one room debating a subject such as social responsibility, which covers issues such as labour practices, the environment, consumer issues, fair trading and operating practices – this was very large group! From ISO's perspective, this was terrific, because the opportunity for so many people to become involved was critical to the success of the standard.

Rob Steele
ISO Secretary-General (Chief Executive Officer)
ISO Central Secretariat
(2018)

What was also impressive was the fact we had so many developing countries involved. Of the 99 countries, around 69 were developing nations. So there's been a very substantial developing country involvement.

Finally, the leadership of this standard was also exemplary as we had twinned leadership from a developing country, Brazil (ABNT) and a developed country, Sweden (SIS).

Elodie Fournet: What made ISO decide it was the right organization to develop such a standard? Aren't you treading on the toes of governments and organizations like the International Labour Office? Where did the impetus come from?  

Rob Steele: The impetus for the standard came from the marketplace – from the stakeholders of ISO and from our broad base of public and private sector organizations that have liaison status with us. ISO is very careful to make sure that any standard that we develop is there to meet the needs of the market, not the needs of ISO itself. We were at some pains to make sure that this standard was going to be relevant to the market. For example, we ran an international stakeholder workshop and conference over three days, before we even started doing any work on the subject, to test whether there really was support for ISO to develop this standard and the overwhelming response was that we should.

When we started involving people in the development of this standard, we knew it was essential to include the ILO and other organizations. I think what we're ending up with is and rather than or. ISO 26000 gives an overarching view, so we're not treading on toes, quite the contrary, we're involving people in the development of an overall framework for social responsibility that respects very clearly what is already in place.

Elodie Fournet: Because the ILO had in fact already worked on this subject?

Rob Steele: They had indeed and there is, in fact, international labour law which is referenced by the standard and so ISO 26000 references the ILO documents. What the standard is saying is that here is the overarching guidance associated with social responsibility, but you must respect and be fully aware of the ILO principles associated with labour practice issues associated with social responsibility.

Elodie Fournet: We have become used to hearing about "Corporate Social Responsibility", but ISO 26000 provides guidance for "social responsibility". Why did ISO feel it necessary to make this distinction?

Rob Steele: When the working group first started looking at this, they were talking about corporate social responsibility but even in the initial workshop I have already mentioned, people were quickly coming to the realization that the principles of corporate social responsibility are really the principles of social responsibility. If you look at the seven principles on which the standard is based, you see that they apply just as much to governmental and nongovernmental organizations as they do to private sector companies. The subject areas addressed by the principles are the following: organizational government, human rights, labour practices, the environment, fair operating practices, consumer issues and, finally, community involvement. All of those subject areas cover both the private sector and the public sector. Therefore, the move to social responsibility was a very natural one.  

Elodie Fournet: Most of ISO's 18 000+ standards fulfil the needs of industry. But social responsibility is of direct interest to a broader range of stakeholders, such as consumers, labour, nongovernmental organizations and academia. How has ISO made sure that their views have been taken into account in developing ISO 26000? Have you had to change your working methods?

Rob Steele: Firstly I should explain that we already have very comprehensive working methods in order to try and achieve engagement from a broad as possible base of stakeholders, including those you've just mentioned. So to explain our existing procedures, we have at the moment, 163 countries who are members of ISO and the possibility exists for each member to engage with stakeholders within their country on a particular subject that ISO might be developing a standard on.

In this particular case, though, this subject is so broad and involves special stakeholders, such as the ILO, OECD, UNGCO and nongovernmental organizations who have a direct interest in this subject that we felt we should open the door even wider. So what we did as far as the ISO Working Group on Social Responsibility is concerned is that we invited some of those organizations to be directly involved in the development and discussions associated with the standard. I think this has worked very well in ensuring that the required expertise was in the room when you're discussing such a broad subject and areas within that subject that are potentially contentious. I think it's good to have everybody on board in the working group and I think it's worked very well.

It should also like to note that once the standard had been completed, using the above methodology, it was placed with ISO members for final approval. The ISO members also took into account the views of stakeholders in their countries so there is a double-level of consensus on the standard.

Elodie Fournet: Can one standard really be relevant to organizations large and small, in public and private sectors, in countries all around the world? What is it expected to achieve for the organizations that implement it?

Rob Steele: I do believe this is relevant for all countries and for all organizations, be they large, small, private sector or governmental. The reason for this is there's an overarching opportunity for greater understanding of what we mean by social responsibility. For example, I think will be incredibly helpful to people to have the simple opportunity of having a common definition of what we mean by social responsibility.

Many people believe that the ISO standard on social responsibility will somehow overtake what's been already done. Instead, I think it provides an overarching view of the subject. So for people who want to get involved with social responsibility, who are trying to understand what they should do within their organizations, this standard provides a one-stop shop, if you like, for an overview of the subject area. It looks at what are some of the areas you should be addressing and provides guidance on how you might implement them.

It's not to say though that some of those areas, for example, labour practices, are exclusively the domain of the standard – quite the contrary. ISO 26000 has a whole annex of references to other information – in the case of labour practices to the ILO as an obvious reference.

Elodie Fournet: Some developing countries have expressed fears that ISO 26000 could become a technical barrier to trade for them. Are these fears justified? What efforts has ISO made to take the needs of developing countries into account in developing ISO 26000?

Rob Steele: I think this is a very good question and that there have been several misconceptions around this particular point. In fact, ISO has gone to considerable effort to involve developing countries in the working group itself, so funding has been arranged for many of them to take part. As I said earlier, of 99 countries that have been involved, something like 69 of those are developing countries.

The other key point that I would make is that having an overarching International Standard that developing countries have had an opportunity to be at the table and have their say in the development of, is absolutely critical. Without this involvement, the other scenario would be where organizations from developed countries, or from organizations with very significant control over the supply chain, impose what their definition of social responsibility might be on organizations in developing countries. With ISO 26000, what we have is an International Standard that's benefited from significant developing country involvement. Therefore, developing countries have had their say in crafting guidance relevant to their needs and context on what socially responsibility is for organizations. I think that's a really good thing for developing countries.

My last point in this connection is that even before the Working Group on Social Responsibility was set up, when we had the international workshop and conference, one of the main points that emerged was the desire and need of developing countries to be involved.

Elodie Fournet: ISO has been at pains to emphasize that ISO 26000 is not a certification standard like ISO 9001 and ISO 14001. Doesn't that mean it will be toothless? How can people be sure that an organization is really applying the guidance provided?

Rob Steele: I strongly believe that a guidance document is exactly what is needed at the moment. We are talking about a very broad subject but the ISO Working Group on Social Responsibility has been able develop a quite concise document that achieves a nice balance between having enough guidance and not having so much prescription which may be needed in a certifiable standard where you could end up with something that is just enormous and potentially lacking flexibility. So I think in this particular instance that the idea of having a guidance standard is actually really important.

The other point to make is that by having it as a guidance standard, it allows people to explore much more easily and much more clearly what it is they want to get out of the standard. In some cases, I think the opportunity to have a standard that is certifiable focuses people's minds on the certificate. In the case of ISO 26000, it focuses people's minds on the performance. In other words what is it that my organization should be doing to be socially responsible?

By making ISO 26000  a guidance document, it provides a concise opportunity for people to actually look at the principles and the objectives of social responsibility and to look how they may apply these principles in their own organization.

Elodie Fournet: Do you think countries are going to have difficulties to control that because there's no certification?

Rob Steele: A counter view is that this actually will  encourage far more people to take up social responsibility and to look at how it may impact on their organizations. ISO 26000 allows some tailoring of what we mean by social responsibility within an organization. I think if we'd tried to make this a certification standard, I think we would have become bogged in agreeing on the amount of prescription that would have been necessary to include.

Frankly, I also think that given the sensitivity of some of the subject areas covered in ISO 26000, making it a certifiable standard just wouldn't have worked and I don’t think we would have reached the consensus that in fact we have achieved by making it a guidance document. I think it was the right decision for this standard.

Elodie Fournet: To sum up, can you say in a nutshell just what practical difference you expect ISO 26000 to make?

Rob Steele: In a nutshell, the standard provides overarching guidance on what is meant by social responsibility, taking in definitions, principles and the core subjects that need to be addressed. ISO 26000 moves from what is a really nice idea to providing something that is pragmatic and which people can actually implement.