Bookmark and Share

Standardization News Search
Plain Talk for a New Generation
ASTM International: The Global Vision

This article is a collection of ideas that form the ASTM International global vision. The individual ideas have been explored in this space since this column began in February 1999. This collection is in response to the many questions still remaining about ASTM, its place in the global community, and the principles that guide it. It is an effort to provide a coherent statement of who we are and what we believe.

Global standardization, by definition, affects everyone. Its presence, or the lack of it, affects the health, the safety, the environment, and the quality of life of everyone on the planet. Consequently, the right to participate directly in a global consensus decision should be denied to no one, anywhere. There should be no prerequisites, no barriers of any kind. And government should participate as an equal among equals, no more, no less. This is ASTM’s membership policy.


There are regional and international standards developing bodies whose memberships are based on national delegations. Voting is by country, and the formula is one country, one vote. This means that national delegations, as opposed to individual participants, are prone, and sometimes directed, to reflect national or regional programs. Although this is not universally true, there are occasions when those programs take precedence over advances in science and technology. Thus politics obscures consensus.

ASTM International believes that voluntary standardization should rise above nationalities, and that science should be safely out of the reach of politics. This is best accomplished when it is entrusted to individual scientists and engineers, whose primary purpose is the pursuit of technical solutions to technical problems.


The evolution of the global marketplace and the emergence of global companies have changed the face of international standardization. For these companies, national and regional boundaries are now only part of the landscape. Their standards needs are varied, and constantly changing.

Direct participation, flexibility, and responsiveness have attracted global stakeholders to ASTM International. Many global companies are among its members, and ASTM standards are adopted into the national portfolios of many countries, both as voluntary standards and as the basis for regulation. One hundred countries are currently represented among its ranks.

Some proponents of development by national delegation contend that all other methods are invalid, and that standards produced in any other way are also invalid, i.e., not suited for international applications. But despite the protestations, the evidence is irrefutable: Standards developed in an environment of individual rights and limited government are powerful tools of global commerce. Two compelling examples of such standards are the Internet standards adopted by the Internet Engineering Task Force and the World Wide Web Consortium and the hundreds of ASTM standards in 62 different product areas that have been adopted by China.

Nevertheless, ASTM International recognizes and respects the choices of the marketplace, whatever they may be. Global companies decide which approaches to standardization are the most appropriate to any given situation, and ASTM’s view is that all approaches, if they have value to the user, are valid. Most importantly, it believes that this choice belongs to those who navigate the turbulent and treacherous waters of commerce, not to policy makers or to standards developing organizations. If this were not so, ASTM would not support two-thirds of all the U.S. Technical Advisory Groups to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and the content of many standards developed within ASTM would not today be the basis for ISO standards.


One of the greatest obstacles to freedom of choice in the global marketplace is the disruption of the voluntary standardization process by the dictates of politics. It is an unnatural occurrence in what is, essentially, a scientific and technical endeavor to improve the quality of life. Political ambition is a blind and poor judge of the marketplace. It is contrary to the concept of consensus, for it asserts authority into a process that works on the principle of equality.

There is a place for politics, but ASTM International’s vision of voluntary global standardization does not include it. One of the struggles of a standards developing organization that espouses freedom of choice is that it must continually confront the widespread notion that there is only one way to develop a global standard and that everyone in the world must subscribe to it. This concept is rooted in industrial policies that have seized upon the process of voluntary standardization in an attempt to manipulate marketplace decisions. Every attempt at control reveals a lack of confidence in the global enterprise system. Every artificial prop robs the entire system of vitality.

Quality and Relevance

Standards, like products in the marketplace, should stand on their own merits. The founders of ASTM were of the opinion that the best international standards should be derived from a global bank of knowledge and that excellence alone should be the price for success. The global standards developed by ASTM International must stand on their own merits, for there is no national or international political device to keep them afloat in commercial waters.

Nothing except high quality and marketplace relevance launches an ASTM standard into worldwide use. These basic values define ASTM standards and their creators. They speak to who we are, what we believe in, and what we stand for. We believe they should be inherent to every standard. We believe these are the ultimate measures of a standard’s worth. We believe that without quality, a standard is without substance, and without relevance, it has no purpose.

Quality can be defined in many ways, but essentially it is the aspect of a standard that makes it function in a superior way. Quality may give the user a competitive edge, or provide a product with maximum levels of safety and health. It may provide the technical path to regulatory compliance. It may be an advanced solution to a technical problem. No matter what its purpose, it will meet the user’s expectations and more likely than not, exceed them. Relevance is a standard’s ability to solve a real problem in real time. The relevant standard will connect to events in the marketplace. It will be practical, appropriate, and realistic. It will travel well and be used, accepted, and recognized in as many marketplaces as possible. It will be the standard of preference instead of the standard of prescription.

Global Principles

ASTM International is of the view that global standards should be developed according to the principles contained in Annex 4 of the Second Triennial Review of the WTO (1) Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement: openness, transparency, impartiality, and by consensus. ASTM concurs with the Agreement’s statement that international standards should not be developed with a view to create unnecessary barriers to trade. ASTM asserts that in fact, standards should facilitate trade, not hinder it.

The Agreement also prescribes the use of international standards as a deterrent to barriers to trade and, with certain notable exceptions, it obligates its member governments to use international standards as the basis for technical regulations. The position of the United States Trade Representative before the Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade is that standards bodies which operate with open and transparent procedures and that afford an opportunity for consensus among all interested parties will result in standards which are relevant on a global basis and prevent unnecessary barriers to trade. In other words, the position of the USTR is that the process of international standardization and the relevance and fair trade aspects of the resulting standards are related more to principles than to the structure of institutions. ASTM International also concurs with this position.

Being Viable

There is only one way to serve, to meet the needs of ASTM’s global members: It is to remain viable. This means being solvent. It means protecting intellectual property rights. To operate otherwise would be irrational. To operate otherwise would betray the trust of ASTM’s members, to those global companies and individuals who come to ASTM with investments of money, time, expertise, and expectations of success.

ASTM International has a commitment to remain viable. It has chosen a business model that designates the sale of documents as the source for the greater part of its revenue. The adoption of this model was a conscious corporate decision, chosen for its many advantages. This model has aligned ASTM theoretically and practically with its global company members, in that survival depends on management, opportunity, and the quality of the product. ASTM encounters the same risks as any global business enterprise, and it must overcome the same kinds of obstacles, from economic downturns to diverse marketplace requirements, to the fluctuations of supply and demand. Its business model has withstood the test of time, and has served it well. ASTM is financially healthy and completely self-supporting; and like any successful company, it is robust enough to reinvest in the continual process of updating, upgrading, and revitalizing its operations. The investment in technology has revolutionized the ASTM standardization process and has improved everything about the way standards are published and delivered. Its electronic network means standards development can take place without the limitations of time and space. It means direct participation is possible for those for whom it had never been possible before.


In the world community of standards organizations, ASTM International and organizations like it are an anomaly. ASTM recognizes this. It does not believe that its way, or any one way, is the only way to develop global standards. But in a system of free global trade, there must be a quid pro quo. Barriers to the use of global standards, no matter how they are created, must be broken down and thrown away.

ASTM International’s global vision is of a world where standards are accepted for their quality and relevance, and freedom of choice is the only choice there is.

James A. Thomas
President, ASTM

(1) World Trade Organization

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.