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Choosing Standards Based on Merit

Following are excerpts from the paper “Choosing Standards Based on Merit,” which is available as a free download. In addition to the material presented below, the paper features examples of U.S. system standards referenced in regulations and in World Trade Organization notifications

World MapInternational standards are the cornerstones of a liberalized trading system. When used as the basis for technical regulations and developed according to principles recommended by the World Trade Organization Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade,1 they are less likely to create unnecessary barriers to trade. International standards can also increase efficiency, enhance the quality of life and transfer technology from developed to developing countries.

The TBT Agreement delegates certain responsibilities to international standards: 1) they must function effectively and appropriately; 2) they must fulfill legitimate objectives; and 3) they must be relevant. In this context, relevance is associated with regulatory and market needs as well as scientific and technological developments. In the global market, relevance is associated with a standard’s ability to solve real problems in real time.

A standard’s relevance is arguably related to the extent to which it is used. Technology that originates in standards developing organizations domiciled in the United States is used in countless measure by WTO members in the efficient production and testing of goods, in international trade and in technical regulations. The widespread application of these standards is plainly evident from the most cursory examination of the technical regulations of member countries, and it is clear that an ample supply of effective, relevant international standards has been produced by a network of standards developing organizations, i.e., standards used in regulation, trade and in building the capacity of developing countries around the world emanate from multiple sources.

Multiple sources of international standards are especially useful to WTO members. They provide regulators with choice and flexibility while reducing the need to base technical regulations on national standards. One of the most important features of the U.S.-based standardization system is that it is open to every nationality; its technical committees abound with experts from around the globe. No less important is its commitment to the TBT principles for the development of international standards2 and the Code of Good Practice.3

The U.S.–based standardization system produces many international standards that do not exist elsewhere. It produces standards and test methods that are unique and standards that have given rise and safety to many of civilization’s best endeavors, from the construction of basic infrastructures to the exploration of space. These standards have become so deeply rooted in the texture of the world’s economies that their absence or the lack of ongoing revisions to their technology would destabilize large areas of international trade and significantly reduce the quality of life on this planet.

This is a guide to a deeper understanding of this system, and the opportunities it offers regulators and exporters to use standards that are best suited to perform specified tasks, whether they are local or universal. A comprehensive map of the immense flow of technology from this system into the world at large is not practical; indeed it is not possible. This paper offers only a representational view of that flow, using examples taken from a large, diverse network of stakeholders.

The significance of the global usage of standards, whatever their origin, must be acknowledged, viewed and weighed alongside the notion that the form taken by standardization models must take precedence over universal acceptance and relevance. The more pertinent question(s), in terms of a liberalized trading system, are 1) whether or not a standard facilitates or poses an obstacle to trade, and 2) whether or not a standard is effective and relevant to market needs and conditions.

What Is Merit?

Merit used as a noun is defined as “worth or excellence; high quality;” defined as a verb, merit means “to earn as a reward or punishment; deserve.”4

Assigning worth, or merit, to a standard is precarious at best, for what constitutes merit in the eyes of one may not constitute it in the eyes of another. In the case of merit, one size does not fit all.

That being said, there are general, or horizontal, positive attributes that can be assigned to a standard, whatever its technical objective. The assignment of merit can begin with the process that creates it. Here, there are accepted guidelines, such as the TBT Committee’s Decision on Principles for the Development of International Standards.5

Other primary tests can be applied to a standard, also taken from accepted principles: the TBT Agreement, for example, requires that a standard be effective and relevant, and that it not act as a barrier to trade.

It can be argued that use is a benchmark of merit; that is, the standard has earned the confidence of a wide range of users. Users apply their own tests: Is the technology advanced? Does the standard produce highly reproducible results? Does it bring about the desired level of change or increase in quality? Is it current and updated regularly? Does it meet the user’s expectations? Will it open markets? Is it doable? A regulator might require that a standard carry a reasonable expectation of compliance or a credible rationale for its application. While some of these values may be anticipatory or subjective, a standard, in the most practical sense, is only as good as its user deems it to be. For the user, that can only be determined when the standard is applied and the results are calculated. Merit is an attribute, therefore, that is earned after the standard is in play.

While the concept of merit is important in the context of this paper, and while the direct or implied merits of standards are imbedded in the examples herein, the freedom to choose a standard based on performance, suitability, effects, i.e., its merits, is the key to liberalized regulation, trade and development.

WTO Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement

The TBT Committee, in its Decision on Principles for the Development of International Standards,6 notes that, “bodies operating with open, impartial and transparent procedures, that afforded an opportunity for consensus among all interested parties in the territories of at least all members, were seen as more likely to develop standards which were effective and relevant on a global basis and would thereby contribute to the goal of the Agreement to prevent unnecessary obstacles to trade.”

The U.S.–based standardization system recognizes the principles outlined in the decision of the TBT Committee as the ultimate authority on the development of international standards. Furthermore, it recognizes that U.S.–based standards developing organizations that apply these principles to their standards-setting process are developing standards that are effective, relevant and contribute to the goal of the agreement.7

In addition, the American National Standards Institute has accepted the Code of Good Practice on behalf of more than 200 standards developing organizations in the United States.

Relevance and Effectiveness

The TBT Agreement requires members to use relevant international standards, or the relevant parts of them, as a basis for technical regulations except when they would be ineffective or inappropriate means for the fulfillment of the legitimate objectives pursued.

The TBT Committee’s Decision on Principles for the Development of International Standards also states, “international standards need to be relevant and to effectively respond to regulatory and market needs, as well as scientific and technological developments in various countries.”

Ideally, industrial policy considerations, technical problem solving and market needs converge in an international standard. When one of these elements is out of balance, the resulting standard is more likely to be irrelevant, inappropriate and/or ineffective, i.e., it may be technically interesting or politically expedient, but it serves no real need. It may even act as a barrier to trade. When a standard satisfies only the objectives of a limited geographic or economic region, the internationality of the standard may also be called into question.

There are fields of technology and significant elements of trade where the international standardization organizations that are sometimes called formal or traditional supply only a fraction of relevant standards, and in some cases, none at all. For example, most Internet standards adopted by the Internet Engineering Task Force8 or the World Wide Web Consortium9 would not “qualify” (according to Raymund Werle, 2001)10 as international standards on which regulations or other standards should be based. Few, however, would doubt their international application, universal acceptance and use.

A large volume of standards and testing methods that emanate from the U.S. system are transposed into the national portfolios of WTO members and/or are used as the basis for technical regulations; i.e., they play internationally significant roles in trade, they are imbued with the qualities of relevance, appropriateness and effectiveness, they facilitate trade, and do not act as barriers to trade.

Adoption, Reference and Use

Governments use standards developed by voluntary SDOs in several ways. Some of the most common methods are listed in Box 1 and illustrate the approach taken by the United States.

Effectual Regulation

Ideally, international standards function as the basis of the regulations of multiple markets, facilitating trade and creating regulatory harmonization as well. In reality, the needs and capabilities of the economies of the world vary; and regulators must often improvise technical solutions to match national or local customs or capabilities. They may use standards from various sources, the relevant parts of standards, combinations of standards or modifications of standards. In other words, regulators routinely take pragmatic paths to regulatory destinations (see Boxes 2 and 3).The key to effectual regulation is flexibility and freedom of choice.


The ability to choose a standard based on its merits is inherent to progress, innovation and trade.

The relative merit of a standard may be determined by the quality of its technical content and how it affects the flow of international trade.

Technical merit is the key to health, safety, workable infrastructures, effectual regulation and the integrity of goods. In this regard, a standard may be judged by the quality of the technical reality it imparts to a product or process. The level of technical merit will be in direct proportion to the level of performance or reliability of the product or process in use.

Fairness is also a mark of merit. Technical excellence notwithstanding, a standard cannot be applied without effect or consequence. Standards, most especially international standards, must also be judged in the light of their intent, i.e., they must not be developed with the aim of purposefully disadvantaging competitors or economies.

Perhaps the greatest test of a standard’s merit, however, is the extent to which it is accepted and used. Despite the absence of a body of empirical knowledge, there is abundant evidence that the use of international standards from multiple sources is widespread and increasing.

Many regulators in nations that are in stages of development or emergence are keenly aware that the ability to choose the standard that can best bring about needed change is crucial, whether or not that standard is applied in its original form or modified to suit local conditions and capabilities. Many are choosing standards from the U.S.-based system and applying them with great success and enormous rewards.

The U.S.-based standards system represents, above all else, opportunity. Its dedication to inclusiveness accounts for the wealth of international talent and the universality of ideas that make its standards so often the choice of regulators and manufacturers around the world.

The standards strategy of the United States acknowledges the value of other systems and the value of any standard that has been produced in accordance with principles of international standardization as set forth by the World Trade Organization Technical Barriers to Trade Committee. In principle and in practice, it espouses flexibility, creativity and freedom of choice. The choice of standards based on merit is its watchword, as it has become for nations around the world.


1. Decision: G/TBT/1/Rev. 8, 23 May 2002.

2. Ibid.

3. See Annex 3 of the TBT Agreement.

4. Standard Desk Dictionary, Funk & Wagnalls, Harper & Row, Publishers.

5. 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 G/TBT/1/Rev. 8, 23 May 2002.

6. Ibid.

7. See the U.S. Standards Strategy.

8. The Internet Engineering Task Force is a large, open, international community of network designers, operators, vendors and researchers concerned with the evolution of the Internet architecture and the smooth operation of the Internet. It is open to any interested individual.

9. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international consortium where member organizations, a full-time staff, and the public work together to develop Web standards.

10. Raymund Werle, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne, Germany, Standards and Standards Organizations in the International Free Trade Regime, presented at the Workshop on Standardization Research, Universität der Bundeswehr Hamburg, September 2001.

Helen Delaney, a former diplomat and former ASTM Washington representative, is the president of Delaney Consulting Inc., of Cambridge, Md. She has spent a full career in government relations, standards and conformity assessment, and she has more than 37 years of experience in the field. For 17 years she was ASTM’s Washington representative and director of global affairs. In 1989, she started her own consulting firm. From 1995 to 1998, she suspended consulting activities to serve in a position newly created by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology: standards attaché to the United States Mission to the European Union in Brussels, Belgium. Sponsored by NIST, she became a member of the Foreign Commercial Service and held the diplomatic title of first secretary. In this post she was an adviser on standards and conformity assessment to two U.S. ambassadors, among others. She resumed her consulting services in 1998; she specializes in standardization and conformity assessment issues and their relationship to regulation and international trade.