ISO is to develop an International Standard for social responsibility. The objective is to produce "a guidance document, written in plain language which is understandable and usable by non-specialists" and not intended for use in certification.

The decision was taken at a senior ISO management meeting on 24-25 June 2004 in Stockholm, following an international conference in the Swedish capital earlier the same week on 21-22 June. The conference provided a platform for stakeholders to give their views on whether ISO should proceed with work addressing the social responsibility (SR) of organizations and, if so, what form it should take.

Based on the consistent and supportive feedback from the conference, ISO concluded that a further feasibility study was unnecessary and that SR work should be "undertaken immediately". In taking its decision, ISO acknowledges "that social responsibility involves a number of subjects and issues that are qualitatively different from the subjects and issues that have traditionally been dealt with by ISO".

Since developing an SR standard will bring new and more varied categories of stakeholders into the ISO system, ISO recognizes that the work will need to be carried out "in an innovative manner", but insists that this remains "consistent with ISO's fundamental principles", including openness and transparency in the way it works.

ISO Secretary-General Alan Bryden commented: "ISO's decision is based on a thorough analysis of trends and initiatives relating to social responsibility and the active involvement of all interested groups of stakeholders. The consensus achieved on the way forward for an ISO contribution illustrates the broadening of the scope of our work and the recognition that today, ISO not only provides a growing portfolio of technical standards, but may also supply solutions and guidance on social and environmental issues in the global economy. This new venture is obviously of great interest to stakeholder groups such as consumers, NGO's, labour and regulators whose participation and input ISO both needs and values."

To develop the SR standard, ISO will set up a new working group answering directly to ISO's Technical Management Board (TMB) that oversees the activities of the organization's 186 standards-developing technical subcommittees. As a first step, it has formed a task force to propose the terms of reference and operating processes for the working group in time for consideration at the TMB meeting in September 2004.

Even before that date, the national standards institutes that comprise ISO's worldwide membership are being asked to submit by 15 August 2004 their candidates for a twinned leadership and secretariat to the SR working group, linking developed and developing countries. The experts to the working group will be appointed by the ISO members from all stakeholder categories. Related international and broadly based regional organizations will also be able to appoint experts.

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.

In deciding to develop an SR guidance standard, ISO emphasizes that it is intended to add value to, and not to replace, existing inter-governmental agreements with relevance to social responsibility, such as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and those adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO), and other UN conventions. Furthermore, it recognizes the need to develop an agreement with ILO on cooperation between the two organizations in the area of social responsibility.

The ISO SR conference, which was hosted by the Swedish Standards Institute (SIS), drew 355 participants from 66 countries, including 33 developing countries, representing the principal stakeholder groups: business, government, labour, consumers, international and nongovernmental organizations.

The major focus for discussion at the conference was provided by the work of the advisory group (AG) on social responsibility which ISO had set up in early 2003 to help it decide on eventual involvement in SR. The group had developed an extensive report including an overview of SR initiatives worldwide identifying issues that should be taken into account by ISO. It had concluded that ISO should go ahead with work on SR on condition that a set of key recommendations are met. On the day after the conference, ISO met the AG to discuss the conference feedback and review the report and recommendations.

At its own meeting on 24-24 June, ISO basically accepted the AG's recommendations and addresses them in its resolution 35/2004 to launch ISO work on SR that takes fully into account the elements identified by the AG in its report and by other stakeholders at the conference.

The full resolution can be consulted on the SR conference Web site created by ISO, along with the presentations made at the event, conference photos and the AG's report and recommendations. For the future, ISO will consider developing a Web site as a means of disseminating good practice in the field of social responsibility.

Considering that the AG has successfully completed its mission, ISO has now disbanded the group, thanking it and its Chair, Daniel Gagnier, Senior Vice-President, External and Corporate Affairs, Alcan Inc., for their achievements.

ISO Deputy Secretary-General Kevin McKinley commented: "The extent to which the issues raised by the different stakeholder groups at the Stockholm conference mirrored those identified in the AG's report confirms the value of the work it has carried out for ISO over an 18-month period. Now it is up to ISO to address these issues and face the challenge of developing practical guidelines that benefit all the stakeholders in social responsibility."