SD and OSR, Where to Start?

The three pillars of sustainable development (SD) are comprised of the environmental, social, and economic dimensions. We talk of social responsibility when an organization takes these pillars into consideration when assessing its impact and its interactions with its stakeholders. According to the BDC, this responsibility stems from governance and therefore concerns all aspects of the organization. An organization may strive for sustainable performance by combining environmental, social, and economic aspects in an ethical manner in all activities.

Between 2005 and 2010, more than 500 experts from around the world participated in numerous meetings to create the ISO 26 000 standard. Unlike other standards, this one is restricted to defining the concept of organizational social responsibility (OSR) and to setting out the concept’s guidelines. It is not a management system, nor is it an assessment or certification tool. In concrete terms, this means that to date, there is no common reference system making it possible to measure, quantify and qualify OSR. It's the Wild West.  Nothing less.

Indeed, anyone can talk about "sustainable development" and "social responsibility." These are not controlled terms. By repeatedly seeing these concepts used in all sorts of ways, people are becoming suspicious, as the ADEME points out in its Guide de la communication responsable. In this context, what can be done? 

First, we can question ourselves on the value we bring to the table.

"What can I say or do NOW to move towards more sustainable governance?"

What’s important is movement. One action at a time. Indeed, if the flutter of a butterfly's wing can influence the course of history, imagine the impact you can have as an administrator!

But in practical terms, where should we start?

This article, far from being exhaustive, aims to inspire and provide you with the necessary tools to take action. 

1. Understand What It's All About

To avoid using these concepts incorrectly, it is important to understand what they mean. This is the appropriation stage. A good start is to know the seven core issues of ISO 26000 and their corresponding action areas. You will find them at the end of this article. The document from which they are taken, Implanter la responsabilité sociale en entreprise, comprendre et agir sur la base d’ISO 26000 (Implementing corporate social responsibility, understanding and acting on ISO 26000 - available in French only), is worth a look for all the examples of practical applications it contains.

Did you know? By addressing these key issues, organizations are contributing to the United Nations' 17 goals to eliminate poverty, reduce inequality and address climate change.

In Quebec, the organization Accélé aims to accelerate the achievement of these goals by 2030 through the creation of innovative and effective partnerships involving governments, the private, philanthropic and academic sectors, as well as civil society.

2. Choose Your Battles

The questions are many and affect all sectors of activity. First and foremost, the organization must be profitable. If it is not, it must ensure its sustainability before anything else. If a revision of the business model is necessary, consider integrating the value proposition of the three dimensions mentioned at the beginning of the article. Les affaires, a French language business magazine, presents three variations of the Canvas Business Model in its article Voici comment combiner impact financier, social et environnemental: economic, social and environmental.

But here's the thing: even if the business or non-profit is successful, resources remain limited and the possibilities to increase positive externalities and reduce negative ones are endless. So, choices must be made regarding which of the ISO 26000 core issues to focus on, in what order, to what extent, and most importantly, why.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of my organization and of its sector of activity, for each of these issues? This involves analyzing the nature and context of the operations, as well as the industry itself in order to identify their relation to sustainable development and social responsibility.

  • What are the relevant areas of action? This is the appropriate moment to evaluate the relevance of each central question. Let's take fashion as an example: its challenges touch on many issues ranging from human rights (child labour, for example) to the environment. Therefore, it is a matter of determining what the company can and wants to do. The French newspaper Le Devoir presents examples of companies that have focused on the choice of raw materials (origin and quality), on the distribution network (with the fewest intermediaries possible) or else on product use (by focusing on teaching).

  • How important are the relevant areas of action? To determine the level of importance, one must first identify one's stakeholders. Then, assess the level of risk for the organization in relation to the level of importance for the stakeholders. This assessment can be made by considering factors related to the industry, the context, the investment horizon, and any support the organization receives. Urgency exists when the level of risk to the organization is high and the issue is important to stakeholders. There is also a concrete risk when the issue is critical for the organization but run-of-the-mill for its stakeholders or when the risk is negligible for the organization but critical for stakeholders.

  • What criteria can we use to prioritize? Several elements that can influence the answer, starting with legislation, pressure from backers or clients, the values of the organization, the personality of upper management, and the potential scope of the impact in quantitative and qualitative terms, to name a few.

3. Get Going

Ever heard of the saying: "The shortest answer is doing the thing"? On the other hand, action does not necessarily mean advancing towards a set goal, hence the importance of clarifying orientations. As part of my MBA, I had the chance to hear a Desjardins employee explain responsible investment strategies. I'm sharing them with you because they struck me as very pertinent to facilitating the transition from reflection to action.

Use the Veto

Motivated by values or principles, it consists of excluding an avenue. For example, a restaurant owner chooses suppliers within a 50 km radius. Thus, he refuses those he considers not "local."

Minimize Weaknesses

This risk reduction strategy can be applied to one or several issues. For example, a manufacturing company can focus its efforts on the environmental issue by actively reducing its water and energy consumption. It can also divide its efforts across the different issues to address the priorities for each. In this case, for example, it could work on water management, updating employee benefits and neighbourhood relations.

Emphasize Your Strengths

This is about being best in your category or in your industry by building on strengths, whether they relate to a single issue - such as being the best employer in Quebec - or to a set of issues or challenges.


Here, the focus is on how our strengths offset our weaknesses at a more affordable cost. For example, a company might choose to make significant donations within its community to compensate for its poor environmental record if it is cheaper to do so than to correct its shortcomings.


There are many steps to take on the road to social responsibility. Eleven to be precise, such as engaging the organization from the bottom up and integrating the organization's governance, systems, and processes.

The good news is that you have the power to act through many roles - citizen, consumer, administrator - and on different scales: human, organizational and societal.

In this way, knowing and recognizing your own priorities and strategies will help you answer the initial question, "What can I say or do NOW to move toward more sustainable governance?"

Bonus : The 7 Core Questions of the ISO 26000 Standard

1. Governance of the Organization

2. Human Rights

2.1 Duty of Care

2.2 Situations Presenting a Risk to Human Rights

2.3 Prevention of Complicity

2.4 Remedying Human Rights Abuses

2.5 Discrimination and Vulnerable Groups

2.6 Civil and Political Rights

2.7 Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

2.8 Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (including child labour)

3. Labour Relations and Conditions

3.1 Employment and Employer/Employee Relations

3.2 Working Conditions and Social Protection

3.3 Social Dialogue

3.4 Health and Safety at Work

3.5 Development of Human Capital

4. Environment

4.1 Pollution Prevention

4.2 Sustainable Use of Resources

4.3 Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation

4.4 Environmental Protection, Biodiversity and Rehabilitation of Natural Habitats

5. Fair Practices

5.1 Fighting Corruption

5.2 Responsible Political Commitment

5.3 Fair Competition

5.4 Promotion of Social Responsibility in the Value Chain

5.5 Respect for Property Rights

6. Consumer Issues

6.1 Fair Marketing, Information and Contracting Practices

6.2 Protection of Consumer Health and Safety

6.3 Sustainable Consumption

6.4 After-sales Service, Consumer Assistance and Resolution of Complaints and Disputes

6.5 Consumer Data and Privacy Protection

6.6 Access to Essential Services

6.7 Education and Awareness

7. Community Involvement and Contribution to Local Development

7.1 Community Involvement

7.2 Education and Culture

7.3 Job Creation and Skill Development

7.4 Technology Development and Access to Technology

7.5 Wealth and Income Creation

7.6 Health

7.7 Investment in Society

Article written by Catherine Lamontagne as part of our collaboration with the Ordre des administrateurs agréés du Québec.