Product Standards and Consumers

By Dawson, Carol | Consumers' Research Magazine, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Product Standards and Consumers


Dawson, Carol, Consumers' Research Magazine


Standards-writing, testing, and certification is critical to the marketing of consumer products. It is also critical to preserving a wide choice of low-cost, diverse, and innovative products. American standards-setting and certifying is a complex, even messy system. But the good news is that it does work.

In a well-ordered society, consumers should have confidence in the products they buy. To that end, corporations spend billions of dollars on research, design, and marketing. But, unknown to many consumers, there is also an independent product testing industry in the United States that does an estimated $10.5 billion worth of business each year. It's time more consumers learned about the benefits of that system and about the forces at work determined to undermine it.

How do you define standards? Why do they matter at all? Well, for example, when you buy a Japanese camera, use American-made film, and have it processed while on a trip to Germany, you hardly give a thought to the fact that all of these components interact so well to produce your color prints. That is one side of standards-setting. Assuring that products work the way they are designed is certainly a tangible but largely unheralded benefit.

Who does this standard writing? Many may think it's the the government, but, in fact, the government does very little of it.

In this country, for nearly 100 years, we have built a free-market system of standards that grew from the bottom up. It is uniquely American. In most other nations of the world, governments exercise some centralized control over standards writing. Now, advocates of more centralized power in America are anxious to impose that sort of system on our country.

An intricate and Effective System. In the United States, most product standards, including those with a specific safety component, are developed through an intricate system of consensus-based private groups. There are about 270 separate standards-writing bodies. Many provide for a panel of consumers to have an advisory role in the process. Once standards are developed, manufacturers turn to independent testing laboratories to certify that the finished product meets a specific standard. Nearly 400 private nongovernment organizations are involved in testing and certification.

Most of us are familiar with at least one certifying label we see on many products, that of Underwriters' Laboratories (UL). UL was founded more than 100 years ago by the insurance industry as a means of applying safety standards to manufactured products. As consumers demanded more in terms of quality and safety, that system has kept pace and today, UL (like hundreds of other similar organizations) is independent and financed almost entirely by fees for its certifying services.

Another group, the ASTM fformerly the American Society for Testing Materials), has developed around 8,000 voluntary, nongovernment, consensus-based standards.

The umbrella group for the standards community is the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Founded in 1918, ANSI is a not-for-profit group which reflects the strong free market views of most of its members. ANSI membership includes 1,300 companies and 250 standards-writing bodies.

ANSI, ASTM, UL - the system sounds complicated. But there's more: laboratories must be accredited, and bodies exist simply to audit and accredit labs which do the testing. Today, there are both private and government-sponsored accreditation systems. One of the private ones is the American Association of Laboratory Accreditation. In addition, there are about 20 industry-specific groups.

The advent of a global marketplace has complicated the system even further, since most other countries have raised standards, testing, and certification procedures as barriers to trade.

United States involvement in the effort to develop truly international standards which would prove acceptable in all markets has been mainly through the private sector. …

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