Guidance on Social Responsibility—ISO 26000

Hand holding paper globe cutout

ISO 26000 was published on 1 November 2010. Unlike most international standards which implement a management system, ISO 26000 is intended to assist organisations in contributing to sustainable development, by providing guidance on social responsibility (SR).

The standard aims to encourage organisations to go beyond legal compliance, recognising that compliance with law is a fundamental duty and an essential part of an organisation’s SR. It aims to operationalise social responsibility.

In August 2017 a guidance document, IWA 26 ‘Using ISO 26000 guidance on social responsibility in management systems’, was published. It is designed to aid organisations use ISO 26000 through the management systems standard (MSS) approach, which was introduced after ISO 26000 was developed. See: LNB News 04/08/2017 128.

The goal of ISO 26000 is to enhance and encourage SR efforts in organisations across the world by establishing common means of evaluation, defining SR concepts, and sharing examples of best practices. The practices set out in ISO 26000 are voluntary standards and guidance for achieving socially responsible practices, rather than certification requirements.

ISO 26000 sets out guidance on:

  • concepts, terms and definitions related to SR
  • background, trends and characteristics of SR
  • principles and practices relating to SR
  • core subjects and issues of SR
  • integrating, implementing and promoting SR behaviour throughout the organisation
  • identifying and engaging with stakeholders
  • communicating commitments, performance and other information related to SR

These core areas of ISO 26000 address potentially contentious issues such as human rights, labour practices, the environment, fair operating practices, consumer issues, and community involvement and development.

The benefit of an international standard is that it represents a form of informal consensus amongst influential elements in the public and private sectors.


What is social responsibility?

Although corporate social responsibility has become a familiar term over the past decade, its framework is still evolving. The ISO Technical Management Board uses the title ‘social responsibility’ as it is intended to apply to all organisations, not just corporations or the private sector. It defines social responsibility as the responsibility of an organisation for the impacts of its decisions and activities on society and the environment, through transparent and ethical behaviour that:


ISO 26000

  • is consistent with sustainable development and the welfare of society
  • takes into account the expectations of stakeholders
  • is in compliance with applicable law and consistent with international norms and behaviour, and
  • is integrated throughout the organisation

The ISO committee decision to drop the term corporate was met with mixed reactions, and there is still no agreed term. Many businesses now publish reports referring to 'corporate responsibility', considering it to be a broader term than 'corporate social responsibility'.

The creation of an international standard providing guidance on SR was seen as a way of mainstreaming the concept, by creating a universal definition.  Agreed common terminology should facilitate the creation and use of frameworks for business, particularly in global corporations.


The standard and the environment

A keen ISO 26000 focus is the environment. The standard asks businesses to:

  • take a precautionary approach to protecting the environment
  • promote greater environmental responsibility, and
  • encourage environmentally-friendly technologies

It also looks at climate change mitigation and adaptation, protection and restoration of the natural environment.


The standard applied in practice

A critical part in measuring the overall performance of a company is measuring a company's impact on environment in which it operates, and its overall performance in the community it operates.

The perception and performance of a company on social influence can also impact on:

  • competitive advantage
  • reputation 
  • ability to attract and retain workers or member
  • customers, clients or users
  • maintenance of employees' morale, commitment and productivity 
  • the view of investors, owners, donors, sponsors and the financial community 
  • relationships with companies, governments, the media, suppliers, peers, customers and the community in which it operates

ISO 26000 is more generic than other standards and goes against the current trends toward independent verification. However, it does set the basic principles that feed into the majority of other voluntary initiatives.

Companies and their advisors should consider whether they should be using the guidance produced by ISO 26000 to improve their social responsibility. It can also be used as a means of checking a company's governance, risk and reporting structure.