Bookmark and Share

Standardization News Search
Plain Talk for a New Generation
If You Say It Long Enough

There is a toy factory in China where quality experts are consulting dog-eared copies of ASTM standards. There is a businessman in Venezuela who said his business never took off until he used ASTM standards to compete in the international arena. He told us that this changed his life and the lives of all the people he was able to employ. We have been told that in Trinidad and Barbados, asphalt, an export vital to the economies of those two countries because it is sold throughout the world, is manufactured to an ASTM standard.

We could fill this column with stories such as these. We could cite Japanese steel manufacturers, Brazilian defense contractors, Lebanese construction engineers, and people in far-flung corners of the world whose lives and businesses are significantly affected by the use of ASTM standards. And yet, there are members of our ASTM committees who are being told that ASTM standards cannot be used in international applications. They ask me if that’s right.

Well, it’s not right. It’s wrong. ASTM standards are widely used in international applications, and not just by manufacturers. Many ASTM standards are used as the basis for the regulations of other countries. They are registered and documented at the U.S. World Trade Organization/Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement Inquiry Point. (1) And still there are members of our ASTM committees who are being told that ASTM standards cannot be used in international applications.

ASTM International has formal arrangements with standards organizations in other countries that translate them into Spanish, Japanese, and Arabic. Through less formal arrangements, they are translated into other languages such as Portuguese, Vietnamese, Chinese, and French. And yet, there are members of our committees who are being told that ASTM standards cannot be used in international applications. And they are not sure if that’s right.

Part of that is because they do not get to meet the Chinese quality experts, or the Venezuelan businessman, or the officials from the Trinidadian and Barbadian standards organizations, or the Brazilian defense contractor. But I do. I get to meet these people. And members of the ASTM staff and members of the ASTM Board of Directors get to meet these people, and talk to them, and listen to them tell us how ASTM standards have changed their lives and their ability to trade, and build their buildings, roads, toys, and bridges, and refine their oil, and test their soil and water for toxins. ASTM standards are not luxuries to these people, nor are they some kind of political choice. They are a means to safety and health and solid infrastructures. They are guarantees; they are symbols of trust. ASTM standards are known quantities. They are chosen for what they deliver. These people are not confused about what an international application is. Nor do they care.

This notion of defining what an international standard is and what an international standard is not is the brainchild of geopolitics, of regional trade strategies. It’s clever and powerful, and it excludes big chunks of reality. But as we all know, if you say something long enough and often enough, people will believe it. Consider this: the most internationally used and perhaps the most internationally significant standards on this planet are Internet standards. Internet standards do not fit the widely-spread “definition” of what an international standard is and what an international standard is not. Most Internet standards adopted by the Internet Engineering Task Force or the World Wide Web Consortium cannot “qualify” as international standards on which regulations or other standards should be based. But people from Reykjavik to Timbuktu are connecting with one another every day because of this amazing technology. Still, the notion that a definition makes something real persists, because if you say something long enough and often enough, people will believe it. The irony of it is that the very standardization processes that deny these standards legitimacy have to use them to make themselves viable and relevant.

That does not mean, however, that there aren’t some internationally accepted principles about standards. These principles have been set down in what is known as Annex 4 of the Second Triennial Review of the Operation and Implementation of the WTO (2) Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement. These principles are actual performance criteria for a standardization process. Almost always, the performance standard is the one that encourages and facilitates trade and is less likely to be used as a barrier to trade. It is the preferred standard, and is stated as such in the TBT Agreement. ASTM knows that, agrees with that, and bases its process upon performance principles. In general, the principles call for transparency, openness, neutrality, and consensus. They ask those-who-have to help those-who-have-not, by sharing technology. This is what ASTM does. These are the principles to which ASTM adheres, and we are working every day to refine them and make them even more meaningful and inherent to our process. It is important for our members to know this, because when they hear that ASTM standards are not for international application, they must know that this is simply not true.

But if you say something long enough and often enough, people will believe it. And the proof of that is that the old notion of exclusively designed international standardization has popped up once again—this time in the draft Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. (3) The FTAA, which will include 34 countries in this hemisphere, currently contains a definition that references only one kind of international standardization process. But there are conflicting views surrounding that language, which means it is still open to change. When it is all said and done, the Agreement will either favor options or not. It will endorse a performance system or a design system. It will embody the freedom to choose the benefits of international standards such as the Internet standards and ASTM standards, or it will limit our choices to a design or a definition that works for some but not for others. I wonder what our friend, the Venezuelan businessman, would think about that. (4)

And to those ASTM members who are not sure about whether or not ASTM standards can be used in international applications, I can assure you that they are, every day, all around the world. Be as sure of this as the people making toys in China, and steel in Japan, and cement in Lebanon, and asphalt in Trinidad and Barbados. Answer the question whenever it is raised. Answer with conviction because it’s true. And something will happen. If you tell the truth long enough and often enough, people will believe it.

Why is that important? Because strangely enough, it’s a belief that affects everybody’s ability to trade worldwide. It affects livelihoods. It affects laws, and the preservation of health and safety. It affects the quality of life. But perhaps most important of all, it affects the freedom of choice. And preserving that is our job, more now than ever.

James A. Thomas
President, ASTM


(1) The U.S. Inquiry Point is located at the National Center for Standards and Certification Information at the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) (phone: 301/975-4040).
(2) World Trade Organization
(3) The draft text can be found on the FTAA Web site and the language to which we are referring is at the end of the section on Market Access.
(4) ASTM has submitted comments on the FTAA draft to the Office of the United States Trade Representative. To request a copy, please contact: Kitty Kono, ASTM International (phone: 610/832-9687).

Copyright 2002, ASTM

James Thomas
President, ASTM

E-mail your comments to Jim Thomas
(Please specify if you would like your letter published in SN’s Letters section.)

Go to other Plain Talk for a New Generation articles.