Standardization News

No Thumb on the Scale

Standards Developed by Consensus and Chosen Based on Merit
James A. Thomas

The World Trade Organization's Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement was crafted 20 years ago. It aims to provide guidance to governments to ensure that technical regulations, standards, and conformity assessment procedures are non-discriminatory and do not create unnecessary obstacles to trade.

As we take stock of what has been achieved over the last 20 years, we see that the TBT Agreement has helped to resolve trade problems while enhancing global cooperation in technical regulation. Today, WTO members, a growing community of some 162 countries, are committed to using international standards developed in accordance with TBT principles - among them openness, consensus, effectiveness, and relevance.

As we look to the horizon, we have reason to be concerned by attempts to undermine effective and relevant international standards developed in accordance with these TBT principles.

Arbitrarily removing a standard that has already been chosen and is in use - in a technical regulation or not - is an affront to a country's citizenry and its industries, because much more is at stake here than the standard's removal. It is the removal of free choice. It is the denial of the right of a society to benefit from the best that standards can offer its people. It is a step backward for industries that have relied on the standard to produce better products.

Clearly, the removal of an international standard in favor of another label for no technological reason is a thumb on the scale of trade. This is a slippery slope to be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, it has come to ASTM's attention that efforts such as these are now taking place.

Imagine a world running on technology from a standards monolith, a cartel lacking in incentive to do better - to be better - because it is entrenched and self-declared as official. Because that's where we end up if standards are chosen in this way.

Standards operate in two ways - by users in the marketplace, and by governments in trade policies and trade agreements. In the marketplace, standards are used by businesses and consumers directly as conveyors of science, technology, competitiveness, safety, and more. In trade policies and agreements, governments may endorse or disallow standards, sometimes not on the basis of technical merit.

ASTM International is an international standards developer whose standards stand on their merits in countries around the world. There is no overarching endorsement or sponsorship of ASTM standards by any government, including that of the United States. Still, on their merits alone, thousands of ASTM International standards are the standards of choice in societies everywhere, and the number is growing. This is an amazing achievement, one that has become increasingly intolerable to predetermined hierarchies and their sponsoring governments, particularly those based in Europe. Unfortunately, it is easier to decree effectiveness and relevance than it is to earn it.

ASTM's 30,000 members, who come from countries representing more than 90 percent of the world's population, can be proud to know that our 12,500 standards need no thumb on the scale. The work of our members and the high-quality standards they create speak for themselves. Millions of people around the world benefit from those standards, and they will continue to benefit from those standards in the decades ahead.

As I prepare to leave the presidency of ASTM International early next year, I find this to be a source of pride and joy: The work we have done has been honest and honorable, and it has been accomplished according to the highest ideals the world community can articulate.

At ASTM, the voiceless have a voice. The disenfranchised have a ballot. And the pursuit of intellectual freedom continues to beckon people worldwide to our door. This is what it takes to develop the best standards in the world. On occasion, there may be attempts to compromise those ideals by external forces, but ASTM International, ASTM standards, and the ASTM way of developing standards will stand the test of time.

James A. Thomas

President, ASTM International

Issue Month: 
Issue Year: