International Rule Making and Standards Setting: A Case Study

The OECD recently launched a series of case studies that identified ASTM International's standards-development process as one that is both open and inclusive.
David Walsh

Originally formed to administer the legendary Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe following World War II, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) today counts 38 countries as members and operates a yearly budget of nearly $400 million euros. Dedicated to the mission of stimulating economic progress and world trade, the organization’s influence can be seen in the global news cycle on any given day. Recent initiatives have included recommending steps to promote the recovery of Australia’s post-pandemic economy; advising the European Union on carbon tax policy; and issuing guidance on safe chemical alternatives for industry
and agriculture. 

So it was particularly notable when the OECD recently embarked upon a case study of ASTM International, conducted as part of an ongoing series of such studies by the organization. Previous installments examined the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), and the World Trade Organization (WTO). The goal of this series is to provide detailed overviews of the structure, governance, instruments, and processes of international organizations (IOs) in support of international rule making and standard setting. The 91-page case study examines ASTM’s organizational capabilities in depth, focusing particularly on three areas of standards development: additive manufacturing (AM) or 3D printing, sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), and sustainable construction. 

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A Unique Proposition

Titled "International Regulatory Co-operation and International Organisations: The Case of ASTM International," the OECD study makes extensive mention of ASTM’s unique membership structure and open standards-development process, noting: “Open participation is one of the key features of ASTM International’s standard-development process. Membership is open to individuals or organisations regardless of number or country, each representing their own interests.”

The report also notes the balance of interests within the voting structure of each of ASTM’s committees. This balance ensures that all voices are heard and no one interest outweighs another: “A balance of interests is secured by ensuring that voting producers cannot outweigh the combined voting user, consumer, and general interest participants. This also creates an incentive for technical committees to represent a variety of interests.”

Also highlighted is ASTM’s ability to avoid inefficiencies and unnecessary duplication of effort. To promote technical alignment, the OECD study points out that ASTM coordinates closely with various actors, notably through the development of joint standards (in selected sectors) with other international organizations such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), as well as cooperation with traditional intergovernmental organizations (IGOs).

In addition, the study notes that ASTM follows the WTO Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Committee’s Principles for the Development of International Standards, Guides, and Recommendations. These six principles seek “to ensure transparency, openness, impartiality and consensus, effectiveness and relevance, coherence, and to address the concerns of developing countries,” including for standardization activities undertaken by international standardizing bodies. This approach is critical because standards developed in accordance with these principles are more likely to be considered as relevant international standards for the purposes of the TBT Agreement, which requires that WTO members use “relevant international standards” as a basis for their national regulations and standards.

Presenting virtually at the OECD’s “8th Annual Meeting of the Partnership of International Organisations for Effective International Rulemaking,” on September 13, ASTM president Katharine Morgan welcomed the case study and further expounded upon ASTM’s unique capabilities. After exploring the three areas of AM, SAFs, and sustainable construction, Morgan looked ahead to next steps, pledging to cooperate and collaborate to meet future challenges. 

“Many European institutions and sectors regularly rely on ASTM standards, while others have hesitated because they didn’t understand how we fit in,” Morgan later said. “The OECD report is helpful in that it places us on a level playing field with other international standards organizations.”

Jeff Grove, ASTM’s vice president of global policy, cooperation, and communications, echoed these sentiments. And he looks forward to the potential for collaboration. “ASTM is excited about collaboration to improve lives and help make the world better. Global, shared challenges such as COVID-19 and climate change require new thinking, rapid innovation, and collaborative response. We hope that we are entering a new era where standards developers and international organizations can collaborate, share information, learn from one another, discuss best practices, and work together to make a difference,” he said.

Additive Manufacturing

The advantages of ASTM’s standards-development process are clearly demonstrated in the first sector explored in the OECD case study, the field of additive manufacturing (AM, also known as 3D printing). An industry that has seen explosive growth in recent years — and that is predicted to grow more than 30% to over $18 billion in size by 2025, according to — AM is having a disruptive and revolutionary impact on areas from construction and infrastructure to biomedicine, aerospace, and more. With such rapid growth, standards for test methods and common technologies are and will be key to continued progress and advancement.

As the OECD notes, ASTM’s partnerships with organizations such as ISO are key to further AM market development: “From the perspective of ASTM International and ISO, the use of a common roadmap and organisational structure for the creation of AM standards enhances their responsiveness to changes in this rapidly evolving sector. Through dynamic collaboration, these organisations are able to leverage their combined procedural and constitutional strengths to better serve end-users.”

Sustainable Aviation Fuels

With 2–3% of human-made carbon dioxide emissions being produced by the aviation industry, the field of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) has taken on greater importance in recent years — so much so that the OECD focused on SAFs as one of the three industry sectors in its case study on ASTM. The report states that “ASTM International standards in sustainable aviation fuels encompass the entire lifecycle of the production process.”

The report goes on to mention the uniquely international and transboundary nature of the aviation industry, indicating that ASTM’s standards-development process is well positioned to assist in its development: “The international standards produced by ASTM International support the scalability of this market and, by extension, help to drive down the costs of SAFs.”

Sustainable Construction

Concrete is ubiquitous as a building material, the case study notes, and construction using concrete is essential to the development of transition economies and human society as a whole. However, with construction activities accounting for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, there is a need to move the sector toward more sustainable solutions.

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Accordingly, standardization is critical to the future, sustainable growth of the construction industry. According to the OECD: “Standards for sustainable construction can also work to forge common terminologies and effective communication among key stakeholders, increase product quality by identifying core principles and decision-making methodologies, and evaluate the environmental performance of building materials.” 

ASTM committees already oversee numerous standards supporting sustainable construction, as cited in the case study, and utilize a process that lends itself to future standards development. As the OECD notes: “The development and adoption of international standard in construction can facilitate international trade in building materials, reducing wastage and inefficient resource allocation.”

Challenges and Next Steps

The OECD study provides some constructive criticism as well, recommending that ASTM seek out viewpoints from beyond its membership as well as cautioning that a great deal of organizational effort is required to keep standards current with the fast pace of change and technological innovation. 

Grove sees this case study vaulting ASTM forward on the global stage, leading to the development of more standards that will help the world and improve lives. “ASTM looks forward to visiting with global partners and important international stakeholders in the months ahead,” he said. Using the OECD case study as an introduction, we look forward to engaging and explaining how ASTM International can be a trusted partner for agile global standards and testing programs that help solve complex challenges.”

In the end, the global pandemic has made the need for such partnerships and collaboration more urgent than ever, with more efficient and flexible standards-development processes being one of the most critical supports to future advancements for society.

As Morgan said: “As the recent global pandemic has taught us, humanity does not face a shortage of challenges in the 21st century. Resilient partnerships and collaboration are more important than ever. Together, we can learn from each other and leverage our respective strengths to solve global challenges, seize current and emerging opportunities, and build together to make the world better.” ■

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