ISO 26000: The best available roadmap for organisations to follow in enhancing their commitment to CSR

Less expensive and easier to get to grips with: “A better initial approach for sustainability professionals would be to buy this guidebook [rather than the standard itself]”

Ira Feldman reviews ISO 26000 by Lars Moratis and Timo Cochius:

I approached this book – the first guide to the ISO 26000 standard to appear after its publication in late 2010 – with great trepidation. Any book seeking to provide a complete and balanced overview of the new standard on social responsibility (“SR”), given its broad scope of seven core topics and its genesis in a fractious multi-stakeholder process, faces a daunting task. And the authors, Moratis and Cochius, while apparently seasoned CSR consultants, were not players in the international-level ISO/SR process. So, as the leader of one of the ISO/SR stakeholder groups (Service, Support, Research & Others or “SSRO”) and as the co-chair of one of the core topic drafting teams (Environment), I must admit that I was a bit sceptical. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded as I have found the Moratis and Cochius book to be remarkably useful both in terms of summarising the key aspects of the standard and in identifying some of the more contentious issues.

Before commenting further on the book itself, let’s first cover a few basics about ISO 26000:

– ISO 26000 is voluntary, and includes no specific requirements; therefore, there is no third party verification and it is not a “certification” standard like ISO 14001.

– ISO – the International Organisation for Standardisation – opted to use the “SR” terminology rather than the more common “CSR” or corporate social responsibility theme. By dropping the “C” in CSR – a somewhat controversial decision at the time – ISO hoped to underscore that the standard applies to all organisations, not just businesses.

– ISO 26000 is not a “management systems standard”. ISO 14001 and ISO 9000 are both management systems standards structured around the Deming cycle’s “Plan, Do, Check, Act” framework. Over vigorous objections, ISO 26000 was consciously drafted to NOT be a management system; instead guidance is offered in each of the seven core topics.

How has the market reacted to these basics as we reach the two-year mark for ISO 26000?

– Several countries (Austria, Sweden and China among others, according to trade press reports) are developing versions of ISO 26000 to which organisations will be able to certify.

– There is no evidence that the “SR” terminology will supplant “CSR” in the scholarly or practitioner lexicon. Clearly, CSR is not a management fad, but is now a considered to be good business practice embraced by the world’s leading companies.

– The resistance to a management systems structure during the drafting process failed to take into account that the uptake of various aspects of ISO 26000, even on a voluntary basis, would likely occur via incorporation into management systems (such as EMSs, QMSs, etc) already in place.

Moratis and Cochius have presented us with a clear and concise guidebook to ISO 26000

Nonetheless, to voice my clear support for ISO 26000 in its present form, it is simply the best available roadmap for organisations to follow in enhancing their commitment to CSR. Sustainability practitioners should be aware that ISO 26000’s “bundle” of core topics (see below) is coextensive with “sustainable business practices” or the “ESG” (environment, social, governance) formulation favoured by the financial sector.

Moratis and Cochius state that ISO 26000 “can be a highly useful guide in determining an organisation’s social responsibilities and helping it implement a proper SR strategy.” The authors acknowledge that “despite its short history, a number of myths and misunderstandings regarding ISO 26000 have already surfaced.” Among these, there is confusion about the scope of the standard; its application to different types of organisations; and its relationship with other standards.” The authors promise upfront to describe what ISO 26000 is – and is not. Their pragmatic starting point is: “Every organisation should interpret CSR in a way that fits its activities, impacts and sphere of influence.”

The meat of the book covers the four main clauses of ISO 26000. Clause 4 deals with SR Principles, the general principles on which ISO 26000 is based, and the starting point for any organisation’s SR policy. “A principle,” the authors assert, “can be seen as a cornerstone for decision-making and behaviour.” The fundamental principles identified in ISO 26000 are:

– Accountability
– Transparency
– Ethical behaviour
– Respect for stakeholder processes
– Respect for the rule of law
– Respect for international norms of behaviour
– Respect for human rights

In the discussion of SR principles, the authors demonstrate that they are not “strict constructionists” in their interpretation of the standard. Indeed, in several places in the book, the authors chide the drafters of the standard for certain oversights. Here, they suggest that a few additional principles – intergenerational, continual improvement, and sustainability impact – should have made the final cut.

Clause 5, which is concerned with stakeholder identification and engagement, gets a full chapter treatment. The authors discuss “stakeholder mapping” approaches and other techniques. They observe, for example, that an analysis of the organisation’s value chain and dependency relationships will aid in identifying relevant stakeholders. Moratis and Cochius point out that stakeholder engagement is not an exercise drawn on a blank sheet of paper, since “some stakeholder expectations have been institutionalized within the law, culture or societal norms.”

Clause 6 of the standard addresses in turn the seven core topics, but no book on ISO 26000 can hope to comprehensively deal with all the subjects in ISO 26000. The core topics covered in ISO 26000 are:

– Organisational governance
– Human rights
– Labour practices
– Environment
– Fair operating practices
– Consumer issues
– Community involvement and development

The authors correctly observe that each of these subjects warrant — and already have — separate books dedicated to the task. Instead, in this relatively short (186 pages) guidebook, the authors provide a nice mix of background material, real-life examples, reflections, practical tools and “experiential implementation tips” that can be used in practice by different organisations. Under each core topic, the standard lays out several “issues” that organisations may need to address, if deemed relevant. Most helpfully in this chapter, the authors provide numerous boxes to illustrate each issue with a real world example.

I have found the Moratis and Cochius book to be remarkably useful both in terms of summarising the key aspects of the standard and in identifying some of the more contentious issues.

Finally, Clause 7 of ISO 26000 explores the integration of SR throughout the organisation. In part, this raises the question of how organisations should select SR priorities. In this chapter, the authors nicely handle important considerations such as “proportionality” and “sphere of influence.” Beyond that, the authors posit the “deep integration” of SR into the organisation. Moratis and Cochius have their own take on “CSR 2.0” or the next round in the evolution of CSR. “SR is not only integrated in systems, structures and procedures,” say the authors, but “also wide support within the organisation and its organisational culture.”

Overall, Moratis and Cochius have presented us with a clear and concise guidebook to ISO 26000. Companies and organisations new to CSR activities will certainly find the book useful as a basic reference guide. Organisations with existing CSR initiatives will also benefit from this volume, since, as the authors suggest, ISO 26000 will likely be applied to increase the credibility of specific CSR claims. Before investing a large sum in the ISO 26000 standard itself (for example, it is available for $223 from ANSI, the national standards body in the US), a better initial approach for sustainability professionals may be to acquire the Moratis and Cochius book, which is available for just $55.

Ira Feldman is the president of greentrack strategies, a group which offers CSR consultation for organisations. He has advised governments and organisations worldwide on sustainability issues, as well as having written two books on ISO 14000.

If you buy your copy of ISO 26000 direct from Greenleaf Publishing you can take advantage of a 30% discount on the cover price. Just enter code ISO260 at the checkout.


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