The current financial crisis has spurred a heated debate on the need to rethink economic globalization in light of its social and environmental impact, particularly on developing countries, and has led to various proposals to strengthen the regulatory framework within which international markets are (or should be) embedded. The external context seems therefore highly propitious for the launching of an interdisciplinary master's programme centred on the interrelated themes of social regulation, standard-setting and sustainable development.
The notion of sustainable development makes its official début in 1987 with the Bruntland Report, in which it is defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". Originally conceived as environmental sustainability, the notion of sustainable development has later broadened its scope of application. Today, various international organizations such as the World Bank, the OECD and the ILO use the expression of 'socially and environmentally sustainable' development to designate a broad range of activities affecting simultaneously a number of spheres. Both academic and policy circles now agree that promoting sustainable development requires a systemic perspective on the long-term consequences of today's policies for tomorrow's environment, society and economy.
An important step in the evolution of the sustainability concept has been the realization that a sustainable development process needs a systematic involvement of all actors who are likely to be affected by regulatory norms. In this respect, the shift from 'government' to 'governance' is often invoked to refer to the decline of the classic command-and-control mode of regulation centred on the nation-state, and the ascendancy of a new system in which social regulation is produced in participatory fashion by public and private actors situated at various levels and collaborating with one another. Clear examples of these trends can be found in the fields of environmental and labour standards, which have seen the emergence and diffusion of multi-level and multi-layered private-public partnerships composed of international organizations, multinational enterprises, administrative branches of the national state, NGOs and various other types of civil society organizations.
In highly stylized terms the new regulatory regime operates as follows: in lieu of detailed regulatory norms issued by a sovereign power there is a code of conduct issued by either a multinational company or an international organization. Responsibility for the more precise definition of the principles, as well as of the means to achieve them, is devolved to local partnerships of private and public actors. These actors are involved based on their interest in or familiarity with specific regulatory problems. Standardization practices play an important role in the new regulatory architecture. Actors often coordinate by voluntarily agreeing of a set of standards, which are then monitored systematically through the collection of data on the performance of local actors and the creation and diffusion of reports and indicators that track the actors’ progress towards sustainability.
Standardization activities enable societal scrutiny and favour the circulation of information about best practices. They have also contributed to give new strength the time-old debate on the social responsibility of business. From an international perspective, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has acquired a preeminent role in the definition of standards.
Some landmarks in the development of the new regulatory architecture are the following:
- The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) launched in 1997 by the UNEP in collaboration with NGOs to promote and standardize sustainability reporting, whereby organizations communicate their economic, environmental and social performance to the public.
- The Global Compact launched by Kofi Annan in 1999 in Davos to stimulate respect of basic human and labour rights, as well as of environmental standards, by multinational companies.
- The launching by ISO, beginning in 2005, of a process aiming to produce international guidelines on the social responsibility of organizations. These guidelines cover issues of internal governance, labour relations and work conditions, environmental impact, and social and territorial impact.
ISO has also produced, internal alia, two well-known families of standards: ISO 9000, which deals with quality management (firm-client relationship, performance, client satisfaction, applicable regulatory norms, etc.), and ISO 14000, which deals with environmental management with a view to improving environmental performance.
In synthesis, the goal of the proposed master's programme is to bring together in a single curriculum the three thematic pillars evoked above: sustainable development, social regulation and standardization. This is done through a partnership between the University of Geneva and the ISO, the world's largest developer and publisher of international standards.