According to the ISO 26000:2010 - Guidance on social responsibility standard, there are seven core subjects of social responsibility, all interrelated but each providing a distinct range of issues. These subjects are:
- organizational governance
- human rights
- labor practices
- the environment
- fair operating practices
- consumer issues
- community involvement and development
While these are each serious issues in their own right, they are all dependent on the environment. Every organization must function within the confines of the Earth’s ecosphere, making it so that every decision and activity carried out will invariably have an impact on the environment, regardless of the organization’s location. Furthermore, as stated in ISO 26000:2010 - Guidance on social responsibility, “environmental responsibility is a precondition for the survival and prosperity of human beings.” It must go hand in hand with social responsibility.
Adverse anthropogenic pressures on the environment are by no means a new issue. For example, 250 years ago, human activity rendered the Steller’s sea cow extinct just 27 years after the marine species had become known to civilization. However, in today’s society, as the human population grows, reaching precariously close to the planet’s carrying capacity of 10 billion (the amount at which we can live without having a negative effect on the planet’s resources or our population), environmental challenges are at the forefront of many concerns.
Section 6.5 of ISO 26000:2010 - Guidance on social responsibility is devoted to addressing the environment and environmental issues and challenges, specifically “the depletion of natural resources, pollution, climate change, destruction of habitats, loss of species, the collapse of whole ecosystems and the degradation of urban and rural human settlements.” For all of these, the international standard calls for organizations to respect and promote environmental responsibility, precaution in executing activities that may inflict irreversible damage onto the ecosystem, environmental risk management, and a polluter pays principle. Polluter pays refers to the idea that the organization should bear the cost of the pollution resulting from its activities.
Some responses to environmental challenges are relatively simplistic. For example, to limit the pollution of a waterway or the air, an organization can just stop polluting the waterways and the air. However, as a globally interconnected sphere of nature, the environment and its issues are incredibly complicated and can emerge from the influence of varying factors. Any damage brought onto a specific natural habitat is likely to threaten the biodiversity of the flora and fauna residing in that habitat, as well as any ecosystem services that may have been offered to humans nearby, such as clean air, crops, and happiness.
The interconnectivity of environmental issues was even present during the extinction of the sea cow. While the predominant theory had once been that the aquatic mammals died out due to being hunted by sailors, many today believe that environmental factors may have been in play. This theory posits that humans actually unsustainably hunted the local sea otter, a keystone species (essential to the functions of the ecosystem) that fed on the sea urchin population. Without the otters to keep the urchins at bay, their population exploded, leading to a decline in the area’s kelp. Without the kelp, the Steller sea cow lacked its primary source of nourishment, meeting extinction through different means, but still by human activities.
Today, the complicated nature of environmental issues is even more prevalent, as climate change, for which we can anticipate patterns of, as stated in ISO 26000:2010 - Guidance on social responsibility, “rising temperatures, changes in rainfall patterns, more frequent occurrences of extreme weather events, rising sea levels, worsening water scarcity, and changes to ecosystems, agriculture and fisheries.” To remain socially and environmentally responsible, organizations should identify their sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, whether direct or indirect, and optimize their reduction. By addressing the means of pollution at their source, organizations can limit their contribution to a multitude of environmental issues.
Another mitigation effort referenced in the standard is the use of more efficient equipment, which can contribute to sustainable development and cut down on pollution of hazardous chemicals, greenhouse gases, and other harmful substances. Furthermore, one of the best practices that an organization can utilize is thinking of the future, such as considering future and global climate projections, to understand the impact they can have on future generations of living things.
In general, organizations can work to fulfill their sustainable development goals by internalizing externalities. For the environment, an externality may be atmospheric pollution, as it is a side effect of industry that is usually not reflected in the finances or plans of the polluting organization. However, by accounting for externalities, organizations can take direct responsibility for otherwise untenable results of their actions. This can be considered part of the polluter pays principle of the standard.
Environmental challenges can be troubling, but most are surely solvable, even at global levels. For example, 30 years ago, the greatest environmental concern was the hole in the Antarctic ozone layer, which shields the planet from harmful UV rays. However, after the culprits – chlorofluorocarbons and halons, once found in refrigerators and aerosol cans – were phased out, the hole has been in recovery and is expected to return to normal by the year 2050. The success of the ozone layer could recur with today’s environmental issues if all organizations and individuals take action.
More information on environmental responsibility, as well as the six other core subjects of social responsibility, can be found in ISO 26000:2010 - Guidance on social responsibility, which is available on the ANSI Webstore.