Do we need a new definition of quality?

A comment of Merih Malmqvist Nilsson at a UNIDO Webinar inspired us to write this blog post. Mrs Malmquist is the former head of the Swedish accreditation body SWEDAC, chairs the International Network of Quality Infrastructure (INetQI) and works as a consultant. She believes that the definition of quality in terms of functionality and safety is no longer sufficient and that we need to add sustainability as another dimension. Similar to the triple bottom line (Profit, People and Planet) for enterprises, we need to measure quality also by the ecological and social impact.

Mrs Malmqvist Nilsson emphasises that “technologies do not always have pre-determined outcomes for societies.” [1] She highlights the societal dimension of technology. It is “a question of policy choices, social dialogue and public opinion” that decides which technologies are used or become established. In line with Swedish tradition, transformation to sustainability is achieved through ecologically based technological innovation and social democracy.

Quality characteristics

But before addressing the relationship between quality and sustainability, let us go back to the concept of quality itself. Here, we want to refer to the quality characteristics that David A. Garvin, a late Harvard Business School Professor of Business Administration, coined in the late 1980s.

Previous to Garvin, the idea of quality control was dominant, based on the concept of cost savings through failure prevention. Contrary, Garvin’s understanding of quality is strategic, based on the idea of competitiveness. For him, eight quality characteristics are decisive for the competitive success of a company [2]:

  1. Performance: A product’s main operating measurable characteristics like power, speed or sound
  2. Features: The extras that enhance the appeal of the product or service to the user.
  3. Reliability: The likelihood that a product will not fail within a specific period.
  4. Conformance: Conformance is the precision with which the product or service meets the specified standards.
  5. Durability: The length of a product’s life, toughness in use and service frequency.
  6. Serviceability: Ease cost and friendliness of service.
  7. Aesthetics: Appearance and impression.
  8. Quality perception: The feel, finish and manner of a customer.

Garvin’s understanding includes the traditional notions of conformance and reliability, but goes further and puts quality into a broader strategic framework. At the same time, he emphasises that some features are mutually reinforcing, whereas others are not; improvement in one may be at the expense of others. Understanding the trade-offs desired by customers among these dimensions help to build a competitive advantage. Professor Garvin also distinguishes between objective quality criteria and those which are more subjective and perception-based (aesthetics and quality perception).

The sustainability triad

The concept of sustainability combines social, economic and environmental objectives and is often presented as three overlapping circles with overall sustainability at the centre [3]. The traditional understanding of quality follows the economic supremacy; therefore, in the following, we will first address the ecological and social dimension of quality.

Green quality

Based on the eight quality characteristics of Garvin, an Indian research team tried to define the term “Green Quality” [4]. They are referring to products that are marketed as “green” or “sustainable”. In the following table, they compare five of Garvin’s characteristics with their traditional and green impact.

Table: Traditional and green impact of Garvin’s Quality dimensions

Without going into detail, the table shows that the traditional impact of quality is mainly related to cost savings and customer satisfaction. In contrast, the green impacts are connected to more efficient use of energy and materials and a lower environmental impact.

However, the authors note that quality characteristics need to be extended to capture the green quality of a product fully. Concerning the analysis of environmental impacts during the product life cycle, they propose to consider “traceability” and “standardisation” as additional dimensions.

Sustainability Standards

In practice, we see that today quality and sustainability go hand in hand. In the area of products and services, sustainability certifications and eco-labels which are experiencing a dynamic growth. Compliance with sustainability standards provides a competitive advantage, as consumers are increasingly seeking sustainably produced products for health and environmental reasons. On the Sustainability-Map Website, the International Trade Centre (ITC) covers more than 220 standards initiatives applicable to more than eighty sectors and hundred-eighty countries.

Today, competitiveness requires more than just offering quality products. The products need to meet sustainability standards. Especially eco-friendly products were still a market niche a decade ago; they are now almost mainstream. Given this development, there is a strong case for expanding the concept of quality and adding a social and ecological dimension.

ISO/IEC 14000

The ecological dimension of quality is not limited to products and services and can be applied to processes and management systems. A useful reference is the ISO/IEC 14000 series of environmental management standards. The private sector promoted the standard during the trade negotiations at the Rio Summit in 1992 to respond to the growing concerns about protecting the environment. The environmental management standard built on the principles of general quality management of the ISO/IEC 9000 series and integrated best practices of environmental management. At the same time, ISO/IEC 14000 certification allows companies to demonstrate their environmental performance to customers and public authorities and produce in a more cost-efficient way.

ISO 26000

Through the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), social sustainability has found its way into the world of ISO standards [5]. In 2010, ISO adopted the ISO 26000 standard as a guide to social responsibility. Corporate Social Responsibility focuses attention on people – not only on customer satisfaction but also on the quality of working life and employee satisfaction. ISO 26000 establishes a more conscious link between people and quality management systems is guided by human rights, labour practices, fair business practices, consumer issues, and community involvement and development. Unlike ISO 9001 or ISO 14001, ISO 26000 is only a guide and not a certifiable management system standard.


In contrast, the Private Standards SA8000 can be certified and audited. It encourages organisations to develop, maintain and apply socially responsible practices in the workplace. Social Accountability International (formerly the Council on Economic Priorities) is the owner of SA8000 and developed the standards in 1989 together with trade unions, NGOs, civil society organisations and companies.  SA8000 is based on the principles of international human rights standards as described in the conventions of the International Labour Organization, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Let us come back to the initial question: Do we need a new concept of quality?

First of all, we would argue yes, because the concept of quality only makes sense today, if it addresses the challenges of sustainable transformation. Quality cannot be limited to the conformity of requirements in a value-neutral way; instead, quality must respond to the societal and ecological demands of a sustainable form of economy and life. Referring to the quality slogan “fit for purpose”, today we need products and services which are functional and safe plus produced, consumed and reused in resource-efficient and socially responsible ways. All in all, the concept of quality requires a normative context.

Still, the foundations of the 20th century’s quality thinking continue to be extraordinarily useful. The idea of efficient production can easily be applied to the handling of scarce resources such as energy and the environment. The idea of quality always has people in mind, not only as customers but also from management, employees or part of the broader circle of stakeholders. The participative instruments of standardisation or confidence building through accreditation are social technologies that contribute to consensus building and cooperation in business and society. In this respect, the quality concept forms part of the technological foundation of sustainability. Finally, when we expand the concept of quality to include an ecological and social component, we make quality useful for the well-being and quality of life.


[1] Malmqvist Nilsson, M. (2020). “Industrial Revolution 4.0 as leverage to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals“, IAF Outlook

[2] Garvin, David .A., “Competing on the Eight Dimensions of Quality“, Harvard Business Review, November-December 1987

[3] Purvis, B., et al. (2019). “Three pillars of sustainability: in search of conceptual origins” Sustainability science 14(3): 681-695

[4] Gouda, S. K., et al. (2019). “What does “green quality” really mean?” The TQM Journal. 

[5] Sapru, R. and R. Schuchard (2011). CSR and Quality: A Powerful and untapped connection. Milwaukee, BSR and ASQ

Featured photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

This entry was posted in ISO 14000, ISO 26000, ISO/IEC 9000, Quality, SA8000, Standards, Sustainability by Dr. Ulrich Harmes-Liedtke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dr. Ulrich Harmes-Liedtke

Dr Ulrich Harmes-Liedtke is a global expert in the field of international economic development cooperation. With more than 25 years of consulting experience, he is active in all phases of a project and program development (preparation, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation) and collaborates with various implementing organizations and development banks (German Development Cooperation - GIZ and PTB -, Inter-American Development Bank, European Union and United Nations). He has consulting experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean. Dr.Harmes-Liedtke is an experienced trainer and process consultant. He works with groups and teams to reflect on their situation and to then formulate change projects to improve their reality. He enables dialogue, facilitates and designs workshops, processes, and sense-making processes. He is certified in facilitation, mediation, and communication techniques which allow him to deal with sensitive, diverse, and even conflict situations. He supports systemic economic development in various roles: • As an expert and trainer in international trade, national quality policies, industrial policy, clusters, and global value chains • As a process consultant in designing and leading diagnostic processes that result in change, adaptation, and improvement • As a facilitator of dialogue, workshops, training, and sense-making processes • As a transdisciplinary researcher in the field of systemic economic development Born 1965, Ph.D. in political science and economics (Bremen 1999), MA in economics (Diplom-Volkswirt) (Hamburg 1991). German nationality.

3 thoughts on “Do we need a new definition of quality?

  1. Thanks Ulrich for initiating this important discussion. From my perspective it is a good approach to add “environmental” and “social” aspects as another dimension to the concept of “quality”.

    Why? – We can no longer focus only on the eight quality characteristics described for the competitive success of a company without taking into account that these very often include activities that are harmful to the environment (e.g. production of too much CO2, environmental pollution from highly toxic pesticides) and to people (e.g. wage dumping, human rights violations).
    When it comes to the environmental aspect, we still think too much about efficiency. Efficiency is an important point, but we also know that we often have a “rebound effect”. Very often a more efficient technology leads to a higher consumption (e.g. switching from a very expensive production of light bulbs with carbon filaments to a much cheaper production of tungsten filaments, which consumes much more energy than before). We must learn to think more in a cycle-oriented environmental economy.

    For the environmental and social aspects, we currently have – depending on the country – a lot of laws and regulation as well as private standards. But how consumers recognize an environmentally or socially friendly product? In Europe there are a large number of standards available. But in the end it is a jungle of labels for the consumer. Each of them deals with specific issues, some only for the final product, some only for a specific part of the supply chain (e.g. very often for the textile sector), other take into account all steps in the supply chain (e.g. bio products). However, these labels are usually an addition an add on to the “quality” of the product e.g. bio or Fairtrade and are voluntary. But most of them focusing on environmental issues or social issues. A holistic approach is rare.

    Quality issues such as hygiene or size for agriculture products are always mandatory requirements and if these quality issues are not complied with, there is no access to the European or other markets. If at least basic criteria for social and environmental aspects were no longer just a voluntary “add-on” to these quality aspects, this would be great success. It would create a level playing field. In my view, however, that would be only possible if basic requirements for environmental and social aspects were defined and made mandatory for the whole supply chain (see in Germany – Initiative supply chain law). A new definition of quality that includes these criteria could be a starting point.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Quality infrastructure helps to meet the Sustainable Development Goals | Quality Infrastructure for Development

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