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UN and ISO Cooperate on Global Corporate Social Responsibility Standards


by Jim Kelly

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Most likely, by the end of 2010, the United Nations Global Compact and the International Organization for Standardization will be celebrating the adoption of ISO 26000, an international standard providing "guidance" on corporate social responsibility. Once adopted, the ISO 26000 guidelines will be the benchmark against which the UN, environmentalists, organized labor, human rights advocates, and government officials will measure corporate "behavior" and demand reforms and reparations accordingly.

The International Organization for Standardization ("ISO") is the world's largest developer and publisher of international standards. The ISO is a network of the national standards institutes of 162 countries, one member per country, with a central secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland that coordinates the system. The ISO believes that the need for public and private sector organizations "to behave in a socially responsible way" is becoming a "generalized requirement of society." For this reason, ISO 26000, the draft of which is being considered, was developed to encourage "voluntary" commitments to social responsibility and facilitate common guidance on concepts, definitions, and methods of evaluation. In the words of Rob Steele, Secretary-General of the ISO , "ISO 26000 will help to mainstream corporate responsibility on a global scale, and it will also provide harmonized globally relevant guidance on social responsibility for private and public sector organizations of all types."

The United Nations Global Compact ("UNGC") is a policy initiative for businesses that are committed to aligning their operations and strategies with ten universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption. Structured as a public-private initiative, the UNGC is a policy framework for the development, implementation, and disclosure of principles and practices that are designed "to build a more sustainable and inclusive global economy." The UNGC is the largest corporate citizenship and sustainability initiative in the world, with over 7700 corporate participants and stakeholders from over 130 countries.

According to the UNGC, corporations that engage in the Global Compact benefit by "adopting an established and globally recognized policy framework for the development, implementation, and disclosure of environmental, social, and governance policies and practices." Thus, the ISO's development of ISO 26000 invaded a space in the global governance of corporate social responsibility that the UNGC had been cultivating for years. For this reason, in November 2006, the UNGC and ISO entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (the "MOU") to cooperate "with a view to ensuring that the ISO International Standard on Social Responsibility and ISO activities relating thereto are consistent with and complement the Global Compact ten principles."

The MOU makes it clear that the UNGC and ISO will be partners in the development and implementation of an international standard on social responsibility, which, in the end, is ISO 26000. In the MOU, the UNGC and ISO agree that:

• They will be mutually supportive of each other.

• They will cooperate in the development of the ISO international standard on social responsibility; activities and publications for the promotion, support, evaluation and approval of the international standard; and any period review of the international standard.

• That the future ISO international standard on social responsibility needs to be consistent with the UNGC and its ten universal principles.

• That the ISO will address any concerns raised by the UNGC in the development and promotion of the international standard on social responsibility.

• That the ISO will seek the full and formal backing of the UNGC Office, and through it, of the core UN agencies, for the final draft of the international standard on social responsibility.

It appears to be the case that the UNGC and ISO are in agreement regarding the content of the present draft of ISO 26000. In September 2009, ISO 26000 was officially published as a Draft International Standard. At that time, a five-month balloting period (from September 14, 2009 to February 14, 2010) began, during which the national member bodies of ISO are able to vote and comment on the text. In May 2010, the comments will be discussed at the next meeting of the ISO Working Group on Social Responsibility , the group developing ISO 26000. If the vote is successful, the document, with eventual modifications, will be circulated to the ISO members as a Final Draft International Standard. If that vote is positive, ISO 26000 will be published as an International Standard in late 2010.

Thus, the United Nations and the world's leading organization for the production and implementation of international standards are close to publishing final guidelines that corporations will be requested to "voluntarily" adopt. Through the UNGC, and with pressure from the NGO community, corporations will feel compelled to undergo "social responsibility audits," publish the results, and take remedial actions. In the end, the United Nations and NGOs will be able to globally govern the activities of transnational corporations in the ISO 26000 coverage areas of organizational governance, human rights, labor practices, the environment, fair operating practices, consumer issues, and community involvement and development.

Jim Kelly is the President of Solidarity Center for Law and Justice, P.C., a public interest civil and human rights law firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. The opinions expressed herein are his own.