Building blocks – ISO standards as powerful tools for taking action

This article originally appeared in ISO Focus magazine, written by Martin Danvers representing the UK on the ISO Technical Management Board.

Recently it was reported that the world’s population had reached seven billion. Although a rough estimate, of only arbitrary significance, the figure is a pointed reminder of the rapidly growing pressure that is threatening the ability of humans to live safely and comfortably with each other, with other species with which we share our habitat and, of course, with the habitat itself.

Although we cannot reliably predict when and how this pressure will result in an irreversible collapse of our ability to coexist with our environment, it has for some time been clear to most informed opinion that radical changes in our behaviour are needed to prevent this breakdown. In essence, this is what sustainability is all about.

The concept is easy to understand, but elusive to define or to underpin with a coherent and exclusive set of principles. This can be a problem for those of us in the ISO community whose instinct as professional standardizers is to define, codify and classify.

One view on sustainability is grounded in the concept of “ sustainable development ” summarized in the 1987 report of the Brundtland Commission : “ …meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs ”.

Whilst it goes on to discuss the eradication of poverty, it fails to reflect the fundamental cultural reality that one person’s needs may be vain aspirations for many, and nonnegotiable demands for others. This takes us into a realm of socio-economic relativism that can be unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory for some.
Three pillars

This view of sustainability goes beyond its roots in physical environmental concerns, so that it is now perceived as being supported by three distinct but essential pillars : environmental, economic and societal.

The economic pillar comprises the established global trading system, seen as a political inevitability and as a driver for rising standards of living. From a standardization perspective it is often taken for granted, since standardization originated as a tool for supporting commerce and enhancing economic growth.

The environmental pillar reflects the need to use the earth’s resources, both finite and renewable, so that future generations can be supported effectively, safely and harmoniously. For standardization this is now fairly familiar territory, and standards such as the ISO 14000 series on environmental management have been making a worthwhile impact for over a decade.

The societal pillar is constructed around the idea that the economic and environmental pillars will inevitably fail unless attention is given to a more equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity. It acknowledges that competition within a rapidly expanding human population for increasingly scarce natural resources will eventually lead to cataclysmic conflict from which nobody and nowhere will be immune.

These social concerns are complex and pose considerable challenges to traditional standardization techniques. It was met successfully with the publication ISO 26000:2010, Guidance on social responsibility. It is significant that the title does not reflect the more familiar “ corporate social responsibility ” term. Whilst large organizations have the potential to make a greater impact by their actions, social responsibility is regarded as being too important a principle to be restricted solely to corporations.

The intention behind ISO 26000 is that it reflect appropriate behaviours for organizations of all types and sizes (and therefore, by implication, by individuals) to bring about the fundamental changes in human social interactions necessary to support a sustainable future.

Obviously, the mere existence of a voluntary standard will not cause these changes to take place. However, ISO 26000 is becoming increasingly influential. Not only is it surpassing many of the expectations of its original proponents, but is serving as a credible reference point for initiatives by national governments and international agencies.
ISO’s contribution

ISO standards that broadly address some aspects of sustainability have been with us for many years. Indeed, there is a strong argument that a significant long-term contribution towards the achievement of a sustainable future has been made by the very existence of ISO : a global, self-financing, non-governmental body that, using a consensual decision-making model, involves a wide range of relevant stakeholders to establish formal, structured codifications on which common expectations can reliably be based.

As ISO evolves its processes for simpler and wider engagement in its work, the grounds for that assertion will inevitably become stronger. However, it has to be emphasized that ISO is not, in the narrow sense, a political movement. Its principal task is to produce standards that are attractive, authoritative and practical tools for voluntary application by those who wish to use them.

During the last five years, sustainability has become more prominent in the collective consciousness of public, governmental and commercial organizations. As a result, an explicit commitment to sustainability has been reflected in standards for those areas of economic activity where it is most pressing, notably construction and the management of water, waste and energy.

For the near future it is likely that standards addressing supply chain issues, employment and, in the widest sense, management systems, will become established as popular and effective tools for codifying common expectations, underpinning regulatory measures and demonstrating commitment.

In the longer term, we can expect sustainability to become a fundamental principle for ISO standards in just the same way as market relevance. Those parts of the global market that conclude that sustainability is not market relevant might well find themselves without a market.

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