Embedded Sustainability as Social Responsibility in ISO 26000

As Sustainability professionals we are often confronted with the request to define, or “explain better”, what is that we are sweating upon. Another challenge is to fend off the assimilation with the whole lot of CSR offer that has been around for some years and too often has deteriorated to the point of becoming just greenwashing or PR at best. Yes, we can stick to the classic definition of Sustainability that friend and colleague @Bob Pojasek taught me years ago: “The ability of an organization to manage transparently its responsibilities for Environmental Stewardship, Social Well Being and Economic Prosperity over the long term, while being held accountable to its Stakeholders”

That’s a pretty good definition, but still it can be obscure for someone who is not in the field so deep. It is nice to say that an organization should demonstrate such ability, but how it translates into action is not so clear, so we still have to explain a lot to our interlocutors. You can just imagine how things get even more complicated when we, especially here at Exsulting, work with “Embedded Sustainability”. What is “embedding” the weird stuff? It can become tricky if you have to get into details and sometimes it may seem that you are just dragging along. However we have powerful allies in this feat. One above all is the ISO 26000 International Standard “Guidance on Social Responsibility”. Really? Ain’t we playing into the hands of the CSR wizards with this? For as much misunderstanding there may be that social responsibility is giving money to the local charity or planting trees here and there, this fundamental keystone of the ethical behavior of organizations is very clear about what one that wishes to be socially responsible should do.

This is in my view especially clear in clauses 2.18, 3.3.4 and 3.3.5 of the standard. In the first point, belonging to “definitions”, ISO 26000 says that SR is the responsibility of an organization for the impacts of its decisions and activities on the environment and society. The standard also says that such responsibility entails contribution to Sustainable Development, takes into consideration the expectations of stakeholders and is integrated throughout the organization and practiced in its relationships. Talk about “embedding”!

The second clause, 3.3.4, calls our attention on the fact that it is the “ongoing, regular daily activities” that have to be addressed by the efforts and that SR should “be integral part of core organizational strategies”, “reflected in decision making and considered in implementing activities”. To my extreme liking, the same clause also states very clearly that philanthropy should not be considered as a substitute for integrating SR into the organization. Guys of PR and Marketing, behold: here is, carved in stone, the end to the CSR spin game! Philanthropy is good, nothing to say against this, but it does not fulfill the Social Responsibility of an organization. Maybe this awareness will mean the end of may sponsorships, let’s hope not to worthy causes, but this is the truth.

Yet, the part that I really ADORE comes with clause 3.3.5 where the standard touches a climax. After stating that Sustainable Development and Social Responsibility are not synonyms, which is correct, it goes on establishing a cause and effect relationship and a scope difference. Sustainable Development is said, is “about meeting the needs of society while living within the ecological limits of the planet and without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet their needs”. This implies a society wide scale of efforts and public policies addressing the issue on a multiplicity of levels that is outside the power of any individual (person or organization). Social Responsibility, on the other hand, “has the organization as its focus” and is “closely linked to Sustainable Development”. How? Well, it is said in plain and unmistakable terms: “Because SD is about the economic, social and environmental goals common to all people, it can be used as a way of summing up the broader expectations of society that need to be taken into account by organizations seeking to act responsibly”. And there is even more: “Therefore, the overarching objective of an organization’s social responsibility should be to contribute to Sustainable Development“!

Does anyone need more to understand what Embedded Sustainability is about? In our view it is about implementing ISO 26000 into every single process of an organization, from Mission setting, to decision making to any planning and any action along the entire Value Chain. My advice is to invest into a copy of ISO 26000, read through it and be at peace: all is there, in the relaxing form of a Guideline that is not a certification standard, but to me should very much be into any commercial law in any Country. If we could make compliance with the principles, and the many suggestions, of the ISO 26000 mandatory for every organization on the planet, we would have solved the majority of humanity’s problems. Included the economy, because since the Guideline explicitly excludes philanthropy from the social responsibility of an organization, financial equilibrium is by default included into the responsibilities that an organization’s leadership should pursue. Besides, the pursuit of the 17 SDGs would fall into place automatically in any possible way.

Since in many “busy” parts of the world August is a time of some rest I am happy to give this reading suggestion to my readers. I hope it will encourage many of our colleagues to reflect and consider the very well balanced Guideline ISO 26000 as a Guideline to business strategies and corporate management more than just an inspiration to some  “social obligation” to be fulfilled half-wittedly. We have done this when putting it at the foundation of the Resilience part of our Embedded Sustainability Index® and are very happy of this so far.