Standards for sustainability and CSR are the result of two opposing forces: the good and the better. This is because, while they are based on good practice, this can inhibit even better practice that goes beyond the criteria set out. Also, there are so many standards for so many different aspects of sustainability that it is not clear what difference yet another one can make.
So how are we to assess ISO 26000, a standard for social responsibility produced by the International Standards Organisation which was published in 2010? Historically ISO has mainly produced standards on more technical and mundane matters, such as specifications for tomato-growing frames and quality management. By facilitating those areas in which there is little competition and more to be gained by co-operation, ISO standards have achieved very widespread use and considerable respect from industry.
ISO 26000 is probably the most inclusive sustainability standard in regards to the issues it covers. These range from environmental issues and the use of the precautionary principle, to organisational governance. In between, the standard directly addresses human and labour rights as well as corruption, fair competition and consumer concerns.
The environmental section not only addresses the precautionary approach and environmental risk management, but is also concerned with the promotion of substantive performance, directly applicable to companies, in the areas of sustainable procurement, the adoption of environmentally sound technologies and control of climate change impacts. The standard also makes use of the concept of ‘sphere of influence’, since it is both intuitive and productive in areas of responsibility that are not addressed in law.
ISO 26000 is also intended for any sort of organisation: large or small, for companies from any industry, for the public sector and for the third sector. While there is some disagreement about how successfully it has met the needs of smaller organisations, it is perhaps its applicability to the public sector that is most interesting.
ISO 26000 is being, and should be taken seriously. Whatever its shortcomings it is a powerful statement of the moral and practical issues facing companies and other organisations. In developing countries, where there are numerous standards and initiatives, it will be particularly influential as companies seek to address their wider responsibilities, perhaps for the first time.