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The Strong Connection between Social Responsibility and Quality

This post comes courtesy of our friends at ASQ in advance of the Pathways to Social Responsibility Conference June 16–17, 2011, in San Francisco, CA.

Today’s corporate world is increasingly acknowledging social responsibility and environmental management, along with quality, as important indicators of corporate performance in the eyes of stakeholders.

A prominent proponent of this approach is John Elkington, head of Volans, a London- and Singapore-based think tank and consultancy for social innovation. Elkington received the 2010 ASQ Spencer Hutchins Jr. Social Responsibility Medal and will be a keynote speaker at ASQ’s Pathways to Social Responsibility Conference.

Advocating triple bottom line (TBL or 3BL) accounting, Elkington promotes expansion of the accounting reporting framework to include ecological and social performance along with financial performance.

The TBL concept maintains company responsibility lies with stakeholders—anyone influenced directly or indirectly by the actions of the firm—rather than shareholders. In fact, the phrase “people, planet, profits” is said to have been coined for Shell Oil by SustainAbility.

Elkington says most of his work has been in the areas of strategy, training, and stakeholder engagement, but that he has crossed paths with quality in the area of supply chain management, particularly when tools such as life cycle assessment are being used.

The discipline of total quality environmental management (TQEM) has evolved over the past couple of decades, encouraged, but not led by, standards like ISO 14011,” Elkington explains.

TQEM uses a variety of tools familiar to quality professionals, including environmental health and safety programs, SA 8000 (a global social accountability standard that focuses on working conditions), total cost assessment, and the already-mentioned total quality environmental management, life cycle assessment, and ISO 14000.

Elkington points to an initiative about a decade ago at companies, including DuPont, where quality guru Philip Crosby’s zero defects approach was cross-applied conceptually to such areas as zero accidents, zero emissions, zero pollution, and zero waste.

“That trajectory didn’t build too powerfully, but I think it’s time to have another go,” Elkington says. “In fact, I’m doing a book on how zero-based targets can be used in a range of different sectors and how they can be applied to different challenges, among them poverty, pollution, and pandemics.

Regarding ISO 26000, the social responsibility standard, Elkington believes his work tends to operate ahead of where current standards apply, but adds, “I think ISO 26000 is a lot better than I thought it would be, and its headings are potentially very important in opening out the agendas for corporate boards and C-suites.”

“I think it will be much harder to deploy and ‘enforce’ ISO 26000 than … pure quality standards,” he cautions. “But as a provocation and as a checklist, it will be useful.”

Elkington concludes that he’s now at the exploratory stage of examining how TQM frameworks, processes, and tools can be applied to social innovation, clean tech, and sustainable business. He invites quality professionals to send ideas and case studies to him at john@volans.com.

3p Contributor

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