Following five years of a consensus-based iteration process, ISO 26000 guidance on implementing social responsibility was recently approved for publication as an ISO International Standard, due for release on November 1. There’s been a lot of buzz in the CSR field around this standard, but what does reaching this milestone actually mean?

In my opinion, probably not a great deal—particularly for those companies very familiar with CSR. The objective of ISO 26000 is to provide a simple guidance document that is easy to use for non-specialists and encourages voluntary commitment to social responsibility. It also looks to provide common guidance on concepts, definitions, and methods of evaluation. But while the 100-plus page document does not contradict the meaning of existing international standards and norms in the social responsibility field—it aligns, for example, with UNGC principles and provides an extensive bibliography of other relevant initiatives and laws—it does not advance them, nor go into the depth required to use this as a stand-alone guide without reference to these other standards.

That’s not to say that IS0 26000 doesn’t contribute to advancing responsible business practices. Defining a basic understanding of social responsibility has the potential to increase the adoption of responsible business practices by all types and sizes of organization around the world—not just corporate entities. In bringing social responsibility to all entities, it may be a useful guide for engaging your supply chain in social responsibility issues. ISO 26000 can provide a first point of call for companies to understand the concepts and implementation tools for a social responsibility program, such as advocating stakeholder engagement and issues assessment methods to define priorities. In addition, this process, unlike those used in creating many other voluntary standards, reflects a global process, involving more than 400 diverse stakeholders from 90 ISO member countries, including 69 developing countries.

But the risk of exploiting this standard exists. Some companies will try to use ISO 26000 “compliance” as a stamp for consumer confidence and a ticket for preferential supplier status. Be careful: There is currently no way to prove compliance. Unlike other ISO standards (e.g. ISO 14001:2004 - Environmental Management Systems), ISO 26000 is a voluntary guidance standard, not a specification document intended for third-party certification. And despite ISO’s attempts to stop this happening, some countries are already working on a set of criteria for auditing, while a growing number of consultants offer certification of companies’ ISO 26000 program and training based on applying the standard. There is concern then that we may end up with a myriad of compliance and competition issues across geographies without necessarily improving the lives of people or our environment.

Essentially, for multinational companies that already have social responsibility management and reporting mechanisms in place, this guideline provides little that’s new or helpful. Apart from exploring parts of the value chain that could benefit from using IS0 26000 as one of a series of reference points, these companies are better advised to remain focused on the already-defined issues that matter most to their business and stakeholders.