Doing What It Takes

ASTM and Its Commitment to Principles for Developing International Standards

For my first column of 2013, I would like to take a moment to look back at one of ASTM International's most basic tenets, a principle that has carried it successfully into its 115th year, a principle that will take it safely into the future. It is this: ASTM International is a standards developing organization that is dedicated to supporting the needs of its members. To understand how that works, we must first step back to view the landscape in which ASTM International resides.

In a world where national and other centralized standards bodies are the norm, the United States houses a collection of standards organizations that lend themselves to product categories or technical specialties, or, in the case of ASTM International, a scope that crosses product and technological lines. The U.S. standardization system is different, of consternation to some. But the standards produced by this outside-the-box anomaly raise the bar of excellence in many fields and give the global marketplace a vibrancy and balance it would otherwise lack.

There are rules for those who would enter this global marketplace, rules that ensure fair play and competition, rules for international standards that are codified in technical regulations. These rules are contained in the World Trade Organization's Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade and institutionalized in the WTO's TBT Committee. This committee created principles for the development of international standards (see below, "WTO Principles for the Development of International Standards"). The principles are without prejudice and the agreement is nondiscriminatory; i.e., there is no list of standards bodies that are designated as preferred or "approved." It only requires that a standards body, when developing international standards, follow its principles and thereby reduce the possibility of producing standards that will act as unnecessary barriers to trade. The United States is a member of the WTO and a signatory to that agreement. It is the only signatory with a decentralized standardization system, i.e., a country with no single national standards body. An anomaly. And this is where ASTM International resides.

ASTM International is not a signatory to the agreement, as the agreement is between governments, but ASTM complies with the WTO/TBT principles for the development of international standards. It has enshrined them in its standards developing process, even though that is not required.

Why, then, did ASTM International make this commitment? It was made when the first principle of this organization was established 115 years ago. And that principle was that ASTM would exist to meet the needs and expectations of its members. Every decision thereafter was made in accordance with this first principle. It is at this principle that all past, present and future ideas meet; it is the end to which all ASTM International activities strive. For this organization, there is no objective higher; there is no financial, administrative or political goal that takes precedence over or compromises this single mission.

ASTM International made the commitment to adopt TBT principles because our members needed to have their standards - their standards - match the realities of international trade. It was necessary to assure the WTO member countries that ASTM standards would not act as barriers to trade. ASTM International had instituted guards against that possibility long before the TBT issued its principles - guards such as openness, transparency and consensus. But ASTM International went the extra mile and instituted practices such as aid to developing nations.1 It completed the agenda set down by the TBT. It complied. Today, countries around the world adopt ASTM standards by the thousands into their technical regulations, allowing ASTM members around the world to export their goods and services, and raising the bar of quality within those countries at the same time.

Are we home yet? No. The United States and its voluntary standards bodies are still an anomaly. And anomalies, by definition, are not the norm. Nor are they easily digested. Change is difficult and slow. WTO members still notify each other when they use an ASTM standard in a technical regulation, a practice reserved for standards that emanate from bodies that are not considered "international." But there are two facts that cannot be ignored: the first is the high rate of usage of ASTM standards by WTO member countries, and second, an ASTM standard has never been brought before the TBT committee as a technical barrier to trade. Definitions are one thing. The realities of the marketplace are another.

The realities of the marketplace are these: Standards in technical regulations are in place to ensure the health, safety and environments of WTO member countries. In use, they must also not act as barriers to trade. And member countries use ASTM standards because they lead the world in quality and relevance.

It was not our primary concern to lend dynamism and balance to a global trading system; our primary concern was to serve our members. It was not our goal to become part of an anomaly, but we became one because our members needed speed and efficiency, and the ASTM International model of direct participation gave them that. Many technical experts from delegate-based and centralized standardization systems also wanted a standards forum that would give them direct participation. They came to ASTM International. They broadened ASTM standards with their contributions and filled its halls with flags from around the world. Here, they found a space where their interests would come first.

And now, we are in our 115th year. And we will strive, and work, and do whatever is required to honor our first principle, and those who founded this organization with such wisdom and foresight.


1. See ASTM International's MOU program.

James A. Thomas

President, ASTM International

WTO Principles for the Development of International Standards

  • Openness
  • Transparency
  • Impartiality and Consensus
  • Relevance and Effectiveness
  • Coherence
  • The Development Dimension

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