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Governing through ISO

Why has the ISO 26000 standard provoked such defensive responses from major governments?

The ISO 26000 process is supposed to produce a standard on social responsibility. And following the Copenhagen Working Group meeting, which I attended, it looks like it will succeed. But the path to get there has been fought tooth and nail by governments – particularly those of the USA, Canada, India and China. In Copenhagen a key issue was the precautionary approach and the extent to which cost-effectiveness needs to take into account the long term. 

What is behind this reaction? ISO 26000 is part of a movement spearheaded by civil society to raise social and environmental standards away from the lowest convenient performance. It defines in some detail the aspirations that organisations wishing to be responsible should consider. But from the government perspective, that looks like usurping their role. And in a way, that is right. Even though the standard carefully excludes the policy-making aspects of government from its scope, this emerging standard challenges them to raise their game.

So perhaps the most significant outcome of the ISO 26000 process will be that it held up a mirror to the world’s governments – and they found they are not quite so pretty as they thought.