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Deciphering the Standards Available to Evaluate the Sale of Goods and Services?

Two private organizations are at the center of developing standards used to evaluate the quality of materials and services sold and purchased throughout the World. One is the American Society of Testing and Materials now known as ASTM International based in Pennsylvania.  The other is the International Organization of Standardization or ISO based in Geneva Switzerland.

A principal difference between the two organizations is the type of standards they develop.  ASTM typically develops standards used to evaluate the quality of finished materials and goods but not services. The standards developed by ASTM apply to all types of “products” ranging from the toys in a child’s hand to the components of a commercial airliner flying overhead.  In contrast, ISO typically develops standards used to evaluate the process for creating materials, goods and services. The standards developed through ISO apply to all types “processes” ranging from the management of security services to the management applicable to the life cycle of software.

While both ASTM and ISO have operated for many decades, they differ in their membership creating the standards they develop. ASTM was founded in 1898 and currently consists of individuals and organizations representing users, producers, and consumers from 140 countries.  Members create “product specific standards” for the purposes of improving the quality and reliability of materials and goods ISO was established in 1947 and currently consists of participating organizations, but not individuals, representing 167 countries. Members create “process specific standards” used in the manufacturing of goods and provision of services for the purposes of developing international trade and cooperation. The American National Standards Institute or ANSI formed in 1918 and based in New York, serves as the member body representing the United States within ISO. ANSI does not develop standards but rather oversees and certifies the development of standards by other organizations.

ASTM and ISO standards are similar in that they are voluntary and consensus based. Both develop standards approved by the individuals, experts, and organizations within their membership. Such standards are not mandatory or legally binding, unless adopted or referenced by a contract, regulation, or authority/

Ironically, neither ASTM nor ISO conduct actual testing to verify compliance with the various standards they develop. The best-known international testing agency is Underwriters Laboratories or UL based in Illinois. Although UL historically tested products for fire and electrical safety, it now tests the safety of a broad range of products across multiple industries. Other international testing agencies include Applied Research Laboratories based in Florida, Bureau Veritas based in Paris, and Baseefa based in London. Whatever agency is used, it is always easier to evaluate a good using a product based ASTM standard, than to evaluate a good or service using a process based ISO standard.


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