Shaping a sustainable future

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Por Roxanne Oclarino
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In a world where standards can be simply defined as agreed ways of doing things, they provide stakeholders with appropriate guidance to help them create structural frameworks to minimize risks, operate more efficiently and continuously improve. With many key players addressing and incorporating sustainability into their practices, ISO provides a guide to bring much-needed clarity to the conversation.

The world may have already crossed a series of tipping points. The past decades were defined with distinct climate impacts, accelerating rates of biodiversity loss, plastic waste in the oceans, enforced land-grabbing and political instability. A new era awaits us all, but we must recognize the impacts of our choices and actions to unwaveringly face the future before it’s too late.

In 2015, the United Nations set the 2030 Global Agenda, with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at its core, to address some of the most pressing issues faced on our planet. This established a collective purpose aimed towards a future of peace and prosperity for the world. More than a common goal, this heeds an urgent call for mankind to partake in a global partnership towards sustainability – the key that will unlock our future.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) reports that the SDGs are now becoming a universal language for governments, non-governmental organizations and businesses to collaborate around shared sustainability targets, commitments, outcomes and impacts. It also highlights the responsibility that the private sector has in addressing social and environmental issues in their respective supply chains, incorporating sustainability in their core business mission and engaging in the transformation of the wider sector they are part of. 

The WWF points out how sustainability standards can help accelerate efforts to achieve the SDGs. Sustainability standards are a key in market transformation – establishing standards which address sustainability issues and offer organizations around the globe a ready-made tool to do so. Bringing together different key players into standards making embodies a multi-stakeholder approach that is highly crucial to the 2030 Global Agenda. 

From a business perspective, McKinsey reports that 43 % of 2 900 executives surveyed said their companies align sustainability with their overall business goals, mission or values. The executives ranked reducing waste at 63 %, reducing energy use in operations at 64 %, and managing their corporate reputations for sustainability at 59 %. This goes to show that sustainability is at the forefront of today’s corporate agenda as well.

What the world needs right now

International Standards are fundamental tools for addressing many of the world’s pressing challenges. Created by a team of standards and sustainability experts, ISO Guide 82, Guidelines for addressing sustainability in standards, provides guidance to standards developers on how to take account of sustainability in the drafting, revision and updating of standards. It also aims to raise awareness of sustainability issues among standards writers and provide them with a systematic and consistent approach to identify and assess sustainability factors, which is essential in every standards-making process. 

Three young people gardening on a city rooftop.

The guide has recently been updated to include information on how standards can support the SDGs and to ensure that they remain relevant in helping the world achieve a sustainable future. Jimmy Yoler, Convenor of the working group that revised the guide, states that the 2030 SDGs were their main mandate in revising the guide to guarantee that sustainability, also expressed through the SDGs, is addressed and incorporated in standards. “ISO Guide 82 aims to improve the understanding of what sustainability is and highlights the multi-faceted approaches in addressing it in standards making. The guide is a valuable asset for standards developers to deliver on the 2030 Global Agenda,” he says.

Furthermore, the guide zeroes in on how sustainable development should be taken into account during the formation of committees and in subsequent phases of the standards development process. This includes which SDGs can be supported by the committee’s work. It guides on how sustainable development can be embedded into the scope, structure and strategic plan of a technical committee from its inception, not to mention promoting awareness of sustainable development amongst a committee’s leadership and participants, safeguarding that it will be an integral part of their work.

Sustainable solutions for all

While the SDGs set ambitious goals for 2030 and national development priorities should align with that vision, it takes collaborative efforts to make that vision a reality. Standards writing can be a complex process which needs to adapt to ever-changing environments and circumstances, taking into account the three pillars of sustainable development: society, economy and the environment. Sustainability is much more likely to be achieved as a whole if those three aspects are addressed in a truly equivalent and cohesive manner. Actions to address issues in these areas influence each other – understanding their dynamic interdependence is key in coming up with sustainable solutions that encompass all three pillars. 

One could say that there are parallels in addressing sustainability in standards and addressing the sustainability issues of an organization. When multiple sustainability issues are identified as relevant and significant, it is possible that there will also be multiple solutions to address them. In such cases, conflicts can arise, i.e. implementing a solution for one issue can prevent a solution being implemented for another, or it can even aggravate the impact of the other issue. Standards developers should recognize that there can be several appropriate ways to address these issues and that the resources and capabilities to implement particular solutions can vary considerably.

Yoler states that, in such cases, standards developers should reconcile the conflicts whenever possible. Alternatively, they can consider providing multiple options in order to make standards users aware of the concerns and enable them to decide which option to adopt. “ISO Guide 82 urges standards developers to respect, consider and respond to the needs of the relevant stakeholders and, where possible and practical, engage them in an exchange of ideas and information sharing based on input from a broad and balanced base of expertise and representation,” he adds.

Vanishing perspective of a two-tier bicycle parking system.

Making sustainability a reality

As sustainable development and progress towards sustainability are heavily dependent on a multitude of factors, ISO Guide 82 outlines a methodology that standards developers can use to develop their own approach to addressing sustainability on a subject-specific basis. On that note, ISO/TC 17/SC 16, ISO’s technical subcommittee responsible for the standardization of qualities, dimensions and tolerances and other relevant properties appropriate to steel for the reinforcement of concrete and prestressing steels, is just right on track.

Jan Karlsen, Chair of this subcommittee, states that ISO Guide 82 is an important document in their future work. In 2019, several action plans were determined to bring sustainability in their work in line with the SDGs and an assessment was carried out to identify which plans are crucial to achieve specific goals. “ISO Guide 82 was one of the main documents used as a tool for that assessment and the committee members found this a practical and useful tool for developing our standards and making sure they are sustainable,” he says.

Recent conventions of the subcommittee concluded with the aim to establish broader groups of sustainability experts to safeguard that sustainability is taken into account in their standards-making process. “As recom­mended by ISO Guide 82, we have recognized the vital role that sustainability experts play in this regard and we rely on them to steer us into the right direction, making sure that our future standards are sustainable in every way possible,” Karlsen adds.

Impacts of sustainability standards have increased in recent years. They can affect whole systems in a myriad of ways by facilitating dialogue between multiple stakeholders across a sector. This can lead to improved strategies and partnerships to tackle key sustainability issues, while also helping to build mutual trust, influence attitudes or empower those who are often excluded from decisions that affect them. Considered as a foundation of sustainability, standards are designed to address the most pressing social and environmental challenges of our time. In parallel, standards are continuously evolving amidst constant struggles for legitimacy and tangible impacts on the ground. What these developments indicate is a recognition of the complexity of sustainability challenges faced at a standard’s inception, highlighting the limits of current approaches and driving a relentless pursuit for new, improved responses. 

Standardization plays an important role in transforming our world into a sustainable one. Embedding sustainability issues in the standards writing itself means they are being addressed at the very core. With sustainability at the forefront of our 2030 Global Agenda, standards writers worldwide are encouraged to consider it at all stages in the standards development process. This will help to safeguard from impacts, at a global scale, of the sustainability issues that matter most. In line with this, ISO Guide 82 hopes to add value to society by helping standards build a better future for us all. 

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Elizabeth Gasiorowski-Denis
Editor-in-Chief of ISOfocus