Why Standardization, Social Regulation and Sustainable Development ?

The current financial and economic crisis has prompted a heated debate on the need to rethink economic globalization in light of its social and environmental impact, and has given rise to a wide range of proposals to strengthen the regulatory framework within which international markets are (or should be) embedded. The external context therefore makes an interdisciplinary Master program centered on the closely related themes of social regulation, standard-setting and sustainable development highly relevant.

The notion of sustainable development was introduced in 1987 by the Bruntland Commission, which defined it as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". Originally conceived purely with reference to the environment, the scope of the idea of sustainable development has widened progressively. Today, international organizations such as the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) use the expression 'socially and environmentally sustainable development’ to refer to a broad range of activities that simultaneously affect a number of spheres. In both academic and policy circles there is now broad agreement that promoting sustainable development requires a systemic perspective on the long-term consequences of today's policies for tomorrow's environment, economy and society.

In this context, standard-setting activities enable societal scrutiny and favor the circulation of information about best practices. They also give a new impetus to the long-running debate on the social responsibility of business. At the supranational level, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has acquired a preeminent role in the definition of standards.

Landmarks for sustainability

The following are some landmarks in the development of the new regulatory architecture:

- The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) was launched in 1997 by UNEP in collaboration with NGOs to promote and standardize ‘sustainability reporting’, in which organizations communicate their economic, environmental and social performance to the public.

- The Global Compact was launched by Kofi Annan in 1999 in Davos to encourage multinational companies respect basic human and labour rights, as well as environmental standards.

- ISO produced, inter alia, two well-known families of standards: ISO 9000, which deals with quality management (firm-client relationships, performance, client satisfaction, applicable regulatory norms, etc.), and ISO 14000, which deals with environmental management with a view to improving environmental performance.

- Beginning in 2005, the ISO launched a process aiming to produce international guidelines on the social responsibility of organizations. The process led to the issuing of ISO 26000 on social responsibility. ISO 26000 is intended to assist organizations in contributing to sustainable development.

Within this context, the goal of the Master program is to bring together in a single curriculum the three thematic pillars evoked above: sustainable development, social regulation and standardization. This is achieved through a partnership between the University of Geneva and the ISO, the world's largest developer and publisher of international standards.