A new social responsibility standard would have implications for apparel firms

A new social responsibility standard would have implications for apparel firms

A final draft standard providing voluntary guidance on social responsibility for companies, governments and other organisations has drawn a mixed review from experts and business leaders.

Compiled by the International Organization for Standardization, ISO 26000 "will provide organisations in both the public and privates sectors with a new paradigm for helping them to operate in the socially responsible way that society now expects," said Jorge Cajazeira, chair of the ISO working group on the draft accord.

The text hammered out during a final round of talks in Denmark in May, and slated to be published as a fully fledged ISO international standard in November, has been largely driven by consumer groups, and also backed by major trade unions, sources said.

The text draws on best practice social responsibility initiatives worldwide covering accountability, transparency, ethical behaviour, and their consistency with universally accepted norms on core international labour standards, human rights, and environment and sustainable development.

Increased accountability
Asked to comment on the ISO draft, John Ruggie, special representative of the UN secretary-general on business and human rights, said: "It's very complex, but the human rights part is fine."

But the Harvard professor noted the guidelines propose measures to increase human rights in the business sector and around the world.

"It helps increase accountability; as such it's good for all business, states, communities, and consumers," said an ambassador from a western European country.

The envoy, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the ISO guidance provides a global umbrella which can help build socially responsible measures into company policy.

Francesco Marchi, director-general of the European Apparel and Textile Confederation (Euratex) described the new ISO guidance as "a positive move," but said it will be a complex endeavour to follow.

Mr Marchi said Euratex would like to replace the hundreds of different corporate social responsibility standards with an agreed global benchmark - but also argued in an interview that having a standard does not necessarily mean a country, or a company, will abide by it.

Brent Wilton, deputy secretary-general of the International Employers Organization, said the 100-page draft ISO 26000 "is too complex and beyond reach of most small and medium-sized enterprises and some multinationals.

"We don't see it as very useful because it's complicated and not user friendly," said Wilton, who represents 148 national employer organisations in 142 countries.

Moreover, Munir Ahmad, executive director of the International Textiles and Clothing Bureau, said when the ISO 26000 norm becomes internationally acceptable, even if voluntary, it's likely to have implications and could also create impediments to trade.

"Those [manufacturers] adapting it may use it as a marketing tool, thus creating a restriction on trade," said the chief of the ITCB, an umbrella group for textile and apparel exporting developing nations.

When accepted as a voluntary tool - by an apparel manufacturer for example - the company can command a higher price than suppliers that don't apply it, putting pressure on other manufacturers to do the same, Mr Ahmad noted.

Hidden agenda?
Some developing country diplomats are apprehensive the guidance may have a hidden agenda.

"It's an indirect way of circumventing serious objections to trade and labour linkage in the World Trade Organization," said a senior Asian diplomat.

"The International Labour Organization is becoming a tool of these interests, paddling their agenda via the ISO," the envoy said.

Sources close to the ILO admit in private that the guidance not only duplicates the role of the ILO but also promotes the privatisation of standards.

But to guard against an erosion of ILO norms, the global labour agency signed a memorandum of understanding with ISO to ensure consistency of the guidance with key ILO standards.

However, supporters' note that consumers are increasingly interested in ethical purchasing and want to know that the products they buy, including apparel, are produced in conditions that meet core standards.

A total of 99 ISO member countries and 42 public and private sector organisations took part in the nearly six-year talks, which included thousands of written submissions.