Even if standards are well specified and actually followed, the question remains: does it make any difference?
By Adrian Henriques, Professor of Accountability and CSR, Middlesex University
Back in the golden dawn of CSR -- all of 10 to 15 years ago -- NGOs, including the most critical, were often supportive of standards and the voluntary approach to CSR in general. Now, under the harsh light of a mid-day sun, there is far more scepticism and disillusionment. Today, NGOs are more focused on what can be achieved through regulation and the law, rather than through voluntary approaches.
Yet, regulation is simply at one end of the spectrum of standards.
Standards and the Role of Governance
Alongside possible sanctions, what is significant about legal regulation is (or should be) the legitimacy of the process that produced it: its governance. And governance is also the key to what makes a credible standard of any kind. It is one of the things that distinguishes the ISO 26000, for example, from almost all the other ISO standards that have preceded. It is what sets the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) apart from many comparable industry-led standards.
Another key factor is monitoring and assurance. It's all very well to have a perfectly specified standard. But how do you know it is being adhered to? And does assurance damage the building of a culture that works toward the social or environmental change a particular standard is supposed to pursue? There are pros and cons to the assurance and verification of standards - and indeed to the credibility of assurance processes itself, as we saw in 2012 from large-scale deaths in standard-governed factories.
And even if the standard is well specified and actually followed, the question remains: does it make any difference?
Too Many Standards Leading to Bias
For some major standards, such as ISO 14001, the jury is out. Moreover, there is a large number of standards relevant to social and environmental issues. Consequently, they often overlap, confusing people within companies, including those responsible for CSR.
There are also standards that enjoy the full and unequivocal support of NGOs. Human rights are in this category. However, human rights are unusual in that they were developed with states in mind, not companies. Moreover, human rights underlie some of the more 'social' standards, such as the SA8000. So how are human rights supposed to be applied within companies?
The new United Nations (Ruggie) framework and its subsequent guidelines are beginning to provide some of the answers to this complex question.
All of this, of course, is relevant just for selecting what standard may be appropriate for your company. Then there is the harder task of actually implementing it. The pitfalls -- and opportunities -- have only just begun! I believe that the process of introducing a standard is at least as important as the ongoing maintenance of making sure the company is adhering to it properly.
Above all, perhaps as the afterglow of that dawn of CSR, there is a need for straightforward guidance that separates the wheat from the chaff and highlights the most significant standards out there. With a bit of luck, NGOs will appreciate the thoughtful application of an appropriate standard.
Previously: The Corporate Sustainability Beauty Contest: Making Room for Full Product Transparency
About the Author:
Adrian Henriques (@adrianhenriques) is an independent adviser on corporate responsibility, social accountability and sustainability, and Professor of Accountability and CSR at Middlesex University. He was a member of the Global Reporting Initiative Steering Committee, is a member of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants’ Sustainability Forum and Chair of the UK mirror committee for ISO 26000.
Henriques' new ebook Making the Most of Standards: The Sustainability Professional's Guide is a part of a series of short sustainable business ebooks published by DoSustainability and offers practical solutions to the challenges posed in this article. You can read more about this book and order it online here.
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