Consumers for Social Responsibility - CSR

Monday, June 12, 2006

Climbing the Tower of Babel: A Universal Definition of SR?

One of the biggest challenges for ISO and indeed people working in social responsibility, is to come up with a universally accepted definition of "social responsibility" as it applies to all types of organizations throughout the world. This is important so that all parties can understand exactly what we're talking about when we speak of "social responsibility" - and that and international standard is meaningful.

Much progress was made in this area at the most recent meeting in Lisbon where the international working group proposed the following definition for Social Responsibility:

"The actions of an organization to take responsibility for the impacts of its activities on society and the environment, where these actions:
  • are consistent with the interests of society and sustainable development;
  • are based on ethical behaviour, compliance with applicable law and intergovernmental instruments; and,
  • are integrated into the ongoing activities of the organization."

While this definition has not been finalized it does give useful guidance to organizations in that it demonstrates that social responsibility is tied to the concept of sustainable development and that it includes much more than simply philanthropic activities.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Is Consumers International's Outrage Over-the-Top?

On the eve of the 3rd ISO Working Group on Social Responsibility, Consumers International - CI (A consumer advocacy group representing over 200 organizations in 100 countries), issued a strongly worded press release blasting the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) for limiting press access at the event.

In the release, Richard Lloyd, Director General of Consumers International says, "Big businesses love to tell anyone who'll listen just how socially responsible they are. Yet when it comes to media access to discussions on a global guideline for Social Responsibility, they slam the doors shut."

According to CI, industry stakeholders are positioning themselves to restrict press coverage to include only the opening and closing sessions of the plenary. The ISO Task Group responsible for this has published their operating procedures on media participation
(here) and representatives of the different staekholder groups including the Industry Stakeholder Group list their response in this memo. "This", says CI, "will mean the media will not be privy to discussions about the creation of the ISO SR standard." A full copy of the CI press release can be found here.

The fact is there has been no decision on media access made by the ISO working group and in the absence of such a decision, ISO is deferring to its usual procedures regarding media access - but this does not preclude the working group on social responsbility from introducing its own procedures. Indeed, this is being planned in Lisbon. So CI's intervention at this point is a strategic one... but is its importance perhaps being overstated?

It is worth noting that all decisions regarding ISO 26000 and its processes are made by the working group at the closing session (which is open to media) on the basis of consensus which is defined by ISO as:

General agreement, characterized by the absence of sustained oppositionto substantial issues by any important part of the concerned interests and by aprocess that involves seeking to take into account the views of all parties concerned and to reconcile any conflicting arguments. NOTE: Consensus need notimply unanimity.

In such a process the exchange of ideas and mutual learning across stakeholder groups is essential. It is therefore critical to the success of the process that there exists safe spaces in which to exchange and debate ideas outside of the media spotlight. By insisting that all of the discussions be open to the media, it may have the unintended effect of driving all of these discussion underground - making the process even less open.

The call for transparency by CI is important - and we should all encourage an open and transparent standard development process, but this doesn't mean that the only way to achieve this is by granting unlimited access to the media. By framing the argument as such, we may in fact be decreasing transparency as individuals and organizations who need a space to learn and share from others to develop their nascent positions shy away because of media scrutiny. We need to embrace an open process while still allowing space for frank and open discussions to take place between various stakeholder groups so that real consensus building can occur.

To be fair the ISO working group coordinating this process had made significant efforts to encourage transparency by granting the public unprecedented access to all presentations, drafts, resolutions, etc. on the web at the following
website. Transparency can yet be improved of course, but one can't help but wonder if CI's criticms are more strategic than substantial. We'll continue to track this issue at the Lisbon conference.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Preparing for the Road to Lisbon (May 15-19, 2006)

The last few weeks have seen a torrent of e-mails flowing back and forth as members of the ISO's working group on Social Responsibility (of which I am a part) work on the first draft of the Guidance on Social Responsibility and prepare for the next meeting in Lisbon in May. The lion's share of the work is occurring in three different task groups. A brief summary of this work appears below along with my own commentary on some of the challenges facing the different task groups going forward.

Task Group 4 - TG4 is responsible for drafting the scope, social responsibility context, and social responsibility principles relevant for organizations. The principles section is a key section to the standard since the principles set out the guidance and direction to affect an organization's overall decision-making and activities. Some believe that the principles section should include both substantive principles derived from instruments of inter-governmental bodies (i.e. UN Global Compact's 10 principles) as well as procedural-oriented principles such as transparency, accountability, respect for rule of law and the value of stakeholder engagement and continual improvement in social responsibility practices.

TG4 Challenges: Struggle to find a comprehensive definition for social responsibility that applies to all organizations

Task Group 5 - TG5 is responsibile for drafting text on core SR subjects and issues guidance. The core subjects should derive from the principles and are the actionable practices/areas towards the organization should direct its implementation efforts. While it is up to the organization to determine the exact scope and nature of its SR programs and initiatives, an initial listing of issues areas might include: Governance, Human Rights, Natural Environment, Workplace Environment, Community, Operational Fairness, Responsible Products and Services.

TG5 Challenges: Finding issue areas that are relevant for public, private and civil society organizations.

Task Group 6 - TG6 is responsible for drafting guidance for organizations on implementing social responsibility. It is about the process, methods and tools that an organization can use to take action on the core subjects that demonstrate their commitment to the principles. It is hoped that this section will include processes for determining boundaries of an organization (i.e. including subsidiaries and spheres of influence), quality of stakeholder mapping and engagement, performance measurment and monitoring for continual improvement and reporting and assurance process to enhance credibility of SR claims.

TG6 Challenges: 1) Care required to avoid being too prescriptive in the guidance standard; 2) Developing a robust process so that organizations cannot simply carve out unsustainable or socially irresponsible elements of their operation for purposes of the guidance standard; 3) The need to address the issue of quality in stakeholder engagement; and developing a provision for organizations to assure their stakeholders on the veracity of its SR claims.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Church Says Consumers Can Effect Globalization

Consumer concerns over how designer products are made can have an important effect on globalization, Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin told a conference this week that consumer concerns over how products are made can have an important impact on globalization.
"When consumers begin to tell us that they are not just concerned with the designer label on their sports shirt, but also the labor conditions within which it was made, then the business community will respond more rapidly" to fix those working conditions, the archbishop said. He added that the church has a role to play in educating and enlightening public opinion in the area of social responsibility and in creating "new forms of international cooperation to provide realistic, but robust, norms for worker protection"

Read more from Catholic Online >>>

Is Ethical Consumerism Just a Niche?

Certainly the concept of ethical consumerism is getting more attention these days in response to recent and ongoing corporate scandals, environmental disasters, child labor violations, and dangerous work environments throughout the world. But the question remains - how relevant is ethical consumerism really. Very few rigourous studies have been carried out on this subject in North America and certainly not in Canada but a recent study in the UK suggests that direct spending by consumers on "ethical products" amounts to some CDN$18 billion a year. but still this is only amounts to 4 percent of the consumer spending and one would expect the amount to be much lower in Canada where ethical consumerism is not as advanced.

So it may be a niche for now but what about in the future? What will happen to consumer behaviour when more information is available to consumers about the social responsibility of the producer and the conditions under which a product was made. Already there is technology that would allow us to access instant ratings from our cell phones. Some organizations have also envisioned embedding radio frequency chips in the actual products themselves which will tell you more about the product, how it was produced (maybe an interview by the person who made it or a testimonial from a previous buyer) and this may offer some assurance to conusmers and give them important information to better inform their purchasing decisions. Brave new future? It's already here...

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Time for Kicking Tires is Over

I have to admit that I was reluctant at first to get involved in the process to develop an ISO Guidance Standard on Social Responsibility. It just seemed so unwieldy and destined to become the standard of lowest common denominator - where country representatives would water down the guidance to a point where it would become meaningless. However, I was hopeful especially by the approach taken by ISO to attempt to open the process to a wider and more inclusive audience. Instead of a bunch of technical standards experts sitting around a table and designing the standard, ISO has taken the unprecedented step of inviting multi-stakeholder groups to participate in the development process.

Normally, experts are organized in national delegations for international standards development, but for this standard ISO has created six stakeholder categories in which experts are grouped. These include experts from industry, labour, consumer, non-governmental organizations, government and 'other' - which helps ensure that the voices of these stakeholders will be heard throughout the process. Representatives from international organizations such as UN agencies (ILO, WHO and Global Compact) and others such as Consumers International, AccountAbility and GRI have been attending meetings and are able to participate directly as liaison affiliations.

Obviously with such a large and varied group there are problems of trust building but I think that the first two meetings have helped to build that trust to a point where people have moved beyond asking the question "Do we really need an international ISO standard for social responsibility?"or "Is ISO the right organization to develop the standard?" to other questions like "What could it look like?" and "How do we build it so that it's relevant to all stakeholders?". We kicked the tires at the Brazil meeting and we decided to buy some sort of transportation in Bangkok, now we have to decide if its going to be a car or a moped, what model and colour it's going to be, and how many options we're going to outfit it with (realizing that the more options we buy the more expensive it gets). Are consumers buying?

Friday, February 17, 2006

Consumers and Social Responsibility

Globally, consumers appear to be increasingly interested and concerned about social and environmental issues in addition to the more traditional concerns surrounding quality, availability of choice and price of products and service. It is within this context that ISO has decided to launch the development of a guidance standard on social responsibility.

The guidance standard will be published in 2008 as ISO 26000 and be voluntary to use. The standard will be applicable to all types of organizations, including business, NGOs, government, etc. It will provide guidance on how to operationalize social responsibility and, as such, will not be a standard for certification purposes.

There is a range of many different opinions among the various stakeholders on how the guidance standard should be operationalized. The purpose of this blog is to engage in a dialogue with consumers (particularly those in Canada) and invite their input in the development of the standard as it evolves over the next two years.

I look forward to your feedback and input!