The concept of social responsibility is not new. It has been around since the 70s, when early discussions on the role of organizations in society began. What is emergent, is the momentum social responsibility has gained and the shape it has taken.
The momentum is everywhere, evidenced through the different principles, conventions and guidelines now available on the topic or its elements, and their level of adoption. Some examples are the United Nations’ International Labor Organization Conventions, the United Nations Global Compact and Social Life Cycle Guidelines; Equator Principles; Global Reporting Initiative (GRI); Social Accountability 8000; AA1000 Series and more recently the ISO 26000 Guidance on Social Responsibility.
So I’m not going to spend time on the momentum, but rather attempt to discuss the shape social responsibility has taken… And yes, this is where ISO 26000 comes in handy.
ISO 26000 is a voluntary, non-certifiable standard, whose value lies in the attempt to compile all of the different elements of social responsibility in one place, define its evolved concept and provide ways to integrate it into the organization. In the past, social responsibility would be seen as purely philanthropic and/or volunteering efforts. While these are important, we now acknowledge that social responsibility requires understanding society’s expectations and evaluating the organization’s capacity to respond them, so that no false expectations are created. In addition, ISO 26000 also defines the seven core subjects that (at a minimum) need to be considered when thinking about social responsibility: governance, human rights, labor practices, the environment, fair operating practices, consumer issues and community involvement and development.
Thus said, I’d like to make a point clear: The appearance of ISO 26000 doesn’t mean other guideline documents on social responsibility or related aspects are no longer valuable or needed. Contrary to that, they are complementary. The challenge becomes understanding how they interact and at which stage of the process to use them. ISO 26000 is filling a gap between high-level aspirations and reporting by providing a good basis for the “how”.
As with everything, social responsibility has its passionate supporters and detractors. However, if organizations are interested in staying in business for the long-term, social responsibility has to be part of the agenda. So, I’d like to end with a quote from Marc Epstein’s book, “Making Sustainability Work” that really helps getting this point across:
“The issue of whether companies should consider their social responsibility or the impact on their activities … is no longer up for discussion…The challenge has moved from “whether” to “how” to integrate corporate social, environmental and economic impacts—corporate sustainability—into day-to-day management decisions.”