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 August 2005 Feature
Katharine Morgan is general manager of ASTM International’s Technical Committee Support department in the Technical Committee Operations division.

ASTM International’s Global Focus

What You Need to Know

William Lash III, assistant secretary for market access and compliance at the U.S. Department of Commerce, told the attendees of ASTM International’s Open House for Federal Standards Executives in April 2004 that “80 percent of global commodity trade is impacted by standards.” It’s no wonder that international issues have a prominent seat at the standards development table.

Clearly, the world is in a time of transition. Diversity in a nation’s regulations and standards is less acceptable. The world market demands harmonization, globalization, speed and efficiency. The existence of fewer resources fuels the desire to eliminate redundancy and minimize expense. As an important conduit to global trade, a menu of standards options are needed that will offer organizations a competitive edge, ensure safety and public welfare, and position industries for success. The purpose of this article is to help the people who develop ASTM standards understand the trends and issues that impact the content and use of those standards.

Strictly Standards

ASTM International is a purebred standards developer. That’s our mission. It’s what we focus our energies on every day. As providers of that service, we have an obligation to create an environment where members can fulfill their standards objectives; provide standards that support a liberalized trading system; develop standards better, faster and cheaper; and serve the many markets that look to ASTM for standards solutions.

In the context of international standardization, however, ASTM is very different from much of the world. Here, participation is direct — through individual technical experts, not national delegations. ASTM is a global standards system without a national standards body. The government is one participant in ASTM equal to the other participants. The technical credibility and market relevance of our 12,000-plus standards is paramount, since revenue from the sale of those standards is what supports the ASTM infrastructure. Yes, ASTM is different and its uniqueness is often misunderstood in the standards community.

The WTO Weighs In

There have been numerous debates regarding the definition of “international standard” or “international standardization.” The World Trade Organization, established in 1995, is an international organization that deals with the global rules of trade between nations. The WTO is actually the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, established in the wake of World War II. While the WTO is still young, the multilateral trading system set up under the GATT is well over 50 years old. The WTO’s agreements are the result of negotiations among its members. The Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement, signed by 148 member countries of the WTO, seeks to ensure that standards, testing and certification procedures do not create unnecessary barriers to trade.

The TBT Agreement encourages the use of “international standards.” While it does not prescribe the method by which standards are to be developed, it does define an international body as one that is open to all members of the WTO. The International Organization for Standardization, or ISO, International Electrotechnical Commission and International Telecommunication Union used this definition to promote themselves as the sole developers of international standards. Confusion began to bubble in the standards world. Japan and the United States in particular were advocating the position that other organizations were developing international standards.

At the triennial review of the TBT Agreement in November 2000, a significant decision was made. The WTO Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade adopted a set of principles that have been captured in document “G/TBT/ 1/REV. 8. Section IX,” which is titled “Decision of the Committee on Principles for the Development of International Standards, Guides and Recommendations with Relation to Articles 2, 5 and Annex 3 of the Agreement.” The WTO supports the idea that effective and valued international standardization can be better accomplished by supporting sector-driven standards and the observance of basic principles of standards development. Essentially, Section IX states that an organization engaged in the development of international standards must comply with the following principles: consensus, openness, balance, transparency, due process, flexibility, timeliness and coherence. Sound familiar? These are the exact same principles revered by ASTM and that have formed the core of its operation for more than a century.

Eighty percent of the members of the WTO are developing or least-developed countries. These are emerging economies with potential for explosive growth. All of the WTO agreements contain special provisions to provide technical assistance on the preparation of technical regulations (including standards) and the development of standardization skills. There is no doubt that developing countries will affect the global trading system. What standards will be in their portfolios? What standards will be cited in their regulations? Certainly as the donor governments comprising the WTO form trade development policies and offer technical assistance, it is not only for charitable cause. It is done purposefully and very strategically with business also in mind.

Protecting Freedom of Choice

Clearly, one of ASTM’s largest challenges right now is a political one. Treaties, trade agreements and legislation occasionally contain language regarding “international standards.” ASTM needs to proactively monitor the development of these policy documents to ensure the language is performance-based, grounded in the principles of the TBT Agreement, and not prescriptive or based on a member-body orientation only.

A case in point is the Free Trade Area of the Americas Agreement. The process of developing this agreement was initiated at the 1994 Summit of the Americas and aims to integrate the economies of the Western Hemisphere into a single free trade arrangement. There is a small section in the agreement related to standards and it contains a definition of an international standards body. The draft language of the definition is based on a member-body orientation. ASTM and other organizations are working to influence change in this language that would define an international standard as one developed in accordance with the performance-based principles outlined in the TBT Agreement. A definition of this type has already been successfully adopted in the Central American Free Trade Agreement and the Chile/U.S. Free Trade Agreement.

The Multiple Path Approach

So, what is ASTM International’s position on international standardization? It’s quite simple, actually, and is summarized well in the August 2004 issue of SN by ASTM President Jim Thomas.

“The fact is that companies today can’t function with standards from a single source. ASTM standards … that have been chosen because they guarantee success, the high quality and relevant standards that are made better, faster and cheaper … are being challenged because they do not bear a certain label, because they do not come from a pre-determined source. This sole-source theory is finding its way into regulations, trade agreements and industrial policies. ... users are losing the right to choose.

“The barriers to the use of ASTM standards will only come down when users become aware that legislation and trade agreements are predetermining their choice of standards. They will only come down when the voices of users are heard in the halls of governments, when the message is carried to legislators and trade negotiators that standards are instruments of consensus and voluntarism, and that free trade depends on free choices. Not on dictates.”

In today’s complicated business environments, industries need standards from multiple sources. Table 1 provides a comparison of ASTM and ISO technical committees in four industry areas. A multiple path approach is necessary because no single standards developer is able to satisfy the standards needs of every industry.

Within ASTM’s 137 technical committees, the multiple path approach is quite evident. Some of the industries represented in those committees utilize both ASTM and ISO standards to accomplish their marketplace objectives. ASTM committees house hundreds of U.S. Technical Advisory Groups for ISO committees and subcommittees. To deny industry what they need to be competitive would be counterproductive.

Standards Worldwide

How is ASTM an international standards developer? This is another question easily answered. Perhaps the most compelling answer from a policy standpoint is that ASTM clearly meets the requirements of an international standards developer as detailed in G/TBT/1/Rev. 8. Section IX of the TBT Agreement. From an application standpoint, ASTM standards are used as the basis of regulation and national standards around the world. Over one third of ASTM’s revenue from the sale of standards is derived from outside the United States. From an engagement standpoint, there is participation in ASTM from 119 nations, and ASTM has placed a high strategic premium on increased global participation in the development of ASTM standards.

Standardization Strategies

The U.S. Standards Strategy, developed in 2000, is currently under review. The strategy acknowledges the changing world of standardization and reaffirms the principles detailed in G/TBT/1/Rev. 8. Section IX of the TBT Agreement for the development of standards. It also outlines a set of strategic objectives that is based on the sectoral, multiple path approach to standardization.

The European Community implemented a standards strategy to support their infrastructure in 1992. It is a structured system with top-down governmental authority. CEN and CENELEC are the two standards bodies for the 27 European and 14 European-affiliate nations. The European strategy is direct and strategic — to export its philosophy on international standards, most notably through the organizations of ISO and IEC. The Vienna Agreement, established in 1991, provides for a cooperative relationship between CEN and ISO, including liaison activities and parallel voting, at advanced stages, in both organizations.

Some of the industry members represented in ASTM have voiced concerns regarding the European Union’s bloc voting in ISO, especially considering the regional preferences afforded through the Vienna Agreement. Of the 99 member bodies with participating status in ISO, 34 are European. Eighty percent of all ISO technical committees are composed of 50 percent or more voting members from European countries and 58 percent of all secretariats are held by European national standards bodies. Understanding the complexities of the global standardization environment is a precursor to developing a standardization strategy that will accomplish marketplace objectives.

What’s Ahead?

ASTM International and ISO are both international standard developers. Our approaches are different. The systems are different. The access is different. ASTM International encourages its technical committees and the industries they represent to carefully and strategically develop a standards strategy that meets their needs: minimize the duplication of international standards, harmonize if possible and necessary, respect the intellectual property of developers and allocate the resources to support the standardization strategy.

The world market is not a collection of homogeneous interests. It is rather like a puzzle, each national market a piece in its own right, each piece slightly or greatly different from the next, yet part of a global whole. The challenge to industry as well as standards developers is how to operate in this complicated universe.

Through SN and the ASTM Web site, you can keep abreast of the full range of ASTM’s globalization initiatives as there are too many to mention in the space of this article. There are new technical committees, populated with global participation from the time of their inception, formed to address emerging technology areas, such as nanotechnology. Existing technical committees are engaging global participation through new electronic tools such as Web conferencing. Technical and professional training courses that teach the application of ASTM standards are held around the world. The ASTM board of directors has met in Mexico and Germany in recent years and is now planning upcoming meetings in Canada and China. ASTM has signed memorandums of understanding with over 35 developing nations to assist in their access to the ASTM standards portfolio and encourage their use of ASTM standards in regulation or as the basis of their national standards. ASTM has hosted representatives from the national standards bodies of the Latin/Caribbean and Asia/Pacific nations. This summer, we welcomed representatives from the national standards bodies of countries in the Middle East, North Africa, India and Pakistan. ASTM has partnered with ASME International, the American Petroleum Institute and CSA America to open the Consortium on Standards and Conformity Assessment Office in China. The list of initiatives goes on and on.

In conclusion, we are working in exciting but very challenging times. ASTM is committed to the multiple path approach to developing international standards. ASTM is committed to support market sector choice. We are committed to flexibility so that we can be responsive to the industries that depend upon us. ASTM uses a three-pronged approach that is serving the organization well and positioning it for future success — an exceptional network of technical experts, a board of directors and staff that is energized and diligent in furthering the goals of the Society, and a proven system of standards development, the efficiency of which is only improving as technology advances. ASTM will continue with all its collective energy to do what we do best — develop and deliver high-quality, market-relevant international standards. //

Note: This article is based on the Officers’ Conference module “ASTM in the International Arena” and borrows heavily from “Plain Talk” columns written by James Thomas and published in SN.

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