Graham A Brown

ISO 26000 – an International Standard for Social Responsibility

ISO 26000 – an International Standard for Social Responsibility

Graham A Brown

Social responsibility is the responsibility of an organisation for the impacts of its decisions and activities on society and the environment – in effect, its contribution to sustainable development.

For an organisation, social responsibility is about reputation – how the organisation is viewed by its stakeholders. An organisation's stakeholders include shareholders and other investors, but they also include groups such as customers, suppliers, employees, governments and regulatory authorities and the wider community. The range of stakeholder interests can vary widely depending on the activities of the organisation. For example a major mining project in a remote area may carry with it an expectation of the company providing infrastructure, employment and economic development for local communities. For other organisations, social responsibility may focus on provision of reliable products and services and being a good corporate citizen through supply chain management.

The international standard 'ISO 26000: 2010 guidance on social responsibility' was released on 1 November 2010. It defines seven principles of social responsibility:

  • Accountability
  • Transparency
  • Ethical behaviour
  • Respect for stakeholder interests
  • Respect for the rule of law
  • Respect for international norms of behaviour
  • Respect for human rights

These principles are to guide organisations' consideration of their responsibilities in relation to seven subject areas:

  • Organisational governance
  • Human rights
  • Labour practices
  • The environment
  • Fair operating practices
  • Consumer issues
  • Community involvement and development

The standard describes processes for establishing an organisation's social responsibility obligations including identification of legal and voluntary requirements and processes of stakeholder consultation. It also gives guidance on integrating, implementing and promoting socially responsible behaviour throughout the organisation, and more broadly through its policies and practices.

ISO 26000:2010 is not a management system standard and is not intended or appropriate as a basis for certification. It does not provide either a prescriptive list of social responsibility obligations or a specific management system or framework, through which they should be implemented. However, once an organisation has defined its social responsibility obligations (either on the basis of ISO 26000 or other national or international guidelines) and established its own management systems, then it is possible to develop verification processes such as social audits to demonstrate to management and stakeholders that those systems are effectively implemented.

The concept of social responsibility expressed in ISO 26000 is very closely related to the concepts of sustainable development and sustainability reporting. Sustainability reporting in accordance with the established Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) sustainability reporting guidelines, includes reporting of indicators of an organisation's performance in terms of the seven identified social responsibility subject areas. The GRI, which was a participant in the development of ISO 26000 has published a guide to the relationship between GRI reporting and the standard.

Development of the ISO 26000 standard was not without controversy. There was debate about the extent to which social responsibilities should be proscribed. There was also concern, particularly expressed by Australian business representatives involved in the process that the recommended approaches to consultation with stakeholders are too onerous to be feasible for small and medium businesses. This concern resulted in Australia abstaining in the vote to publish the standard.

Notwithstanding these reservations, ISO 26000 is a very important international source of guidance for organisations in defining their social responsibilities and establishing mechanisms to meet them.

GABA has been pioneers in the development of management systems for social responsibility and auditing of social and community relations management systems. For almost ten years we have been involved in the development of social and community relations management systems for mining projects in Australia, the Pacific and South East Asia.

Social responsibilities have been defined with reference to international codes of practice such as the IFC Performance Standards on Social and Environmental Sustainability and standards-based management systems (based on ISO 9000 series quality standards) have been put in place to implement social and community relations management programs. We have conducted periodic audits to verify on behalf of financiers and other stakeholders that these systems have been implemented and achieved their intended results. We have also applied our experience to the social responsibilities of organisations in Australia to assist them in identifying and meeting the requirements of good corporate citizenship.