QI Data Series
What are the differences between countries using international standards?
For decades, the United States, Western Europe and Japan have led international standard development. Representatives of these countries chaired most international standards committees and led standard making through agenda-setting and the know-how of national companies and scientific institutions. Representatives from other countries also participated in standards committees but chaired only a few technical committees. Standards takers are those countries that adopt standards but do not participate in developing those standards.
In recent years, the traditional distribution of roles has been changing. The most prominent example is the People’s Republic of China, which has become increasingly influential in international standardization over the last decade. Today, more Chinese are elected to become the chair of technical committees.[o] A unique feature of China’s involvement in standardization is the extent to which it follows industrial policy state planning. In other countries, the role of the private sector is decisive. China understands that standardization is a strategic tool and a technical must to produce devices of consistent quality and reliability. China has also increased its innovation power and can share its expertise, bringing technologies and national specifications to the international arena. Other emerging countries are also more strongly represented in standards work, co-shaping international standards making.
The use of standards also differs between countries. The World Trade Organization (WTO) recommends adopting international standards as good practice and requires participation in standardization activities as part of the Technical Barriers to Trade TBT agreement, including the participation of developing countries.[i] Generally, industrialized countries adopt more international standards than developing countries. This adds to the structural trade disadvantages of the Global South.
International standards organisations have set up specific support mechanisms to overcome asymmetries. For example, ISO’s committee to support developing countries (DEVCO)[ii] is a policy development committee where ISO members from developed and developing countries discuss issues related to standards development. There are also support programs for developing countries, like the Action Plan for Developing Countries, which the ISO Capacity Building Unit implements, the New Member Rights programme, and the IEC Affiliate Country Programme (ACP)[iii]. These programmes support the participation of representatives from developing countries and facilitate the adoption of international standards and conformity assessment.
International standardization organisations
Typically, the following three organisations are perceived as leading international standards developers. First, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) develops international standards in many areas except electrics and electronics, for which the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) is responsible, and except telecommunications, for which the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is in charge.
IEC, ISO, and ITU have created the World Standards Cooperation (WSC), a joint effort to promote the voluntary consensus-based International Standards System (ISS).[iv] ISO and IEC are non-profit, non-governmental organisations, whereas the ITU is a United Nations specialised agency. All three organisations have their headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
IEC, ISO and ITU represent standardization within the global network quality infrastructure and support institutions (INetQI).[v] Their international standards describe voluntary rules of the game in international trade. They are market-driven, have a voluntary character, and can be developed by national standards bodies (NSBs) through the ISO system and adopted by NSBs. In addition, the international standards can be used as part of good regulatory practice and as the basis for mandatory technical regulations of national states. As a result, the protection of consumers and the environment in international trade can be strengthened.
Notwithstanding the leadership of IEC, ISO and ITU in the international standard making, other organisations develop international standards. Examples are the international food standards of CODEX Alimentarius or the global standards for airline safety, security, efficiency, and sustainability of the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Data is needed to analyse the participation of different countries in the development and use of international standardization. IEC, ISO and ITU provide a range of data on their websites that can be used for such studies.
|Membership Data||124 members (plus 37 correspondent and four subscriber members)[i]||88 (plus 85 affiliate programme members)||193[ii]|
|Technical Committee (TC) data||254 TC and 501 SC[iii]||212 TC and SC||19 Study groups[iv]|
|Number of published standards||24,158[v]||7,114[vi]||Approx. 6,000[vii]|
|National adoption of international standards||No data||No data for member countries|
IEC publishes the number of standards adopted by participants of the Affiliate Country programme[viii]
|Net sales of standards (% of total revenue)||6 444 kCHF (16%)[ix]||2 844 kCHF (10%)[x]||ITU recommendations are free (no fees)|
|Royalties received from members selling IEC or ISO standards||12 417 (kCHF) (30%)[xi]||3 543 kCHF (12%)[xii]||No royalties|
|Certification to standards||ISO Survey for management standards. This data is provided in cooperation with the CA industry in each country, but it is not complete and depends on the collaboration of the CAs in sharing data.||1M+ certificates issued|
IEC is the only organization that offers a globally standardized approach to certification to standards. The 4 Conformity Assessment Systems, IECEE, IECRE, IECEx, IECQ cover all electrical and electronic devices used in homes, offices, healthcare facilities, energy generation, explosive environments, and electronics manufacturing.
|Conformity assessment bodies||ISO is not responsible for CABs. CABs use the standards, but ISO is not responsible for CA data.||4 CA Systems. However, the data about the CA systems (i.e., Member countries, certification bodies, etc.) is only relevant for IECEE: [xiii]Member countries 54National certification bodies 90Testing laboratories 556[xiv]||No data|
Data on the standard development
All three organisations list their members by country/economy. ITU has the highest number with 193 member states. IEC has 88 members and cooperates with 85 countries participating in the Affiliate Country Programme. Of the 165 ISO National Standard Bodies, 124 are member bodies, 4 are subscriber members, and 37 are correspondent members. Membership status determines the degree of participation in technical committees and the rights to adopt international standards.
The degree of engagement in developing international standards can be measured through participation in Technical Committees (TC). A particular indication of the interest by a country in a specific field of standardization can be seen in the fact that the NSB of the country assumes the role of the secretariat or a country representative chair a TC (at ITU, these are Study Groups). Furthermore, in the IEC and ISO TCs, a distinction is made between participating and observing members (P-members and O-members), which again impacts rights and obligations in a committee.
The number of published standards and its annual increase gives a rough impression of the standardization activity. At the same time, valid standards are regularly revised or withdrawn. For example, ISO has currently published 24,158 standards. The IEC has 7,114 and the ITU around 6,000 valid standards. An overview of the growth of standards in numbers is also given in the Annual Report of the international standards organisations.[i] In the case of “ISO in figures”, the data series can be reconstructed in 1998.[ii]
There are significant differences between the member countries of IEC, ISO and ITU regarding the adoption of international standards. It only makes sense for an NSB to adopt those standards when local companies and consumers benefit from them. At the same time, we observe that some developing country NSBs adopt only a few or even no international standards, even in crucial areas of their economies. This is particularly striking when looking at the figures of the IEC Affiliate Programme.[iii]
However, adopting an international standard does not say that the local industry uses that standard. For this, the sales figures of national standard shops or the number or proceeds of conformity assessments are essential indicators.
Data on the use of standards
Far less information is available on the use of standards than on their development. It would be informative if the international standards organisations publish the downloads and the sales of physical copies of standards annually. This data could be prepared according to the customer’s standard number and country of origin. Researchers and the interested public could read which standards are used where and how much. Unfortunately, there is no such information so far.
The most important source of information on the use of standards is the ISO Survey. Based on a survey of accredited certification bodies worldwide, ISO indicates how many companies and branches hold certifications of the various ISO management standards. The data is broken down by standard type, country, and business sector. See our related blog post.[iv]
No data is available on how many companies per country and sector have certified their products based on international standards. The same applies to the lack of information on the certification of persons, laboratory tests and inspections.
However, IEC provides figures of the number of certification bodies and laboratories active and recognised in the context of conformity assessment of IEC standards. These data are broken down by country. From the numbers of conformity assessment bodies, conclusions can be drawn about the country-specific use of IEC standards. Similarly, information on the use of ISO standards can be determined from the accreditation data Mesopartner and Analyticar collected in the GQII. See our blog post on this.[v]
Our review of the IEC, ISO and ITU websites shows extensive statistics. However, the organisations have significant differences regarding the scope and details of published data. There is an asymmetry between data related to standards development (e.g., associated with the number of standards and participation in standards committees) and the use of standards (related to adoption and certification). Little information is available on how the standards are used in the different countries.
The responsibility for providing data for the use of international standards in different countries can certainly not be the sole task of the international standards organisations. Based on the concept of a “tripartite standards regime” (Loconto/Busch 2012)[vi] consisting of standard-setting, accreditation and certification, many international and national quality infrastructure organisations need concerted action. Researchers, who have their interest in reliable data, could also contribute here.
For a country comparison of international standards, it would be informative to obtain data per country on adoption by the national standard bodies. IEC publishes this data for its affiliates (developing countries) but not for its members. In addition, ISO and ITU lack information on the national adoption of their standards. To close these information gaps, the collaboration of national standard bodies is needed.
The international standards organizations publish the current standardization data on their websites. Blind and van Laer wrote, “.. it is easy to access the current membership status of countries in committees on the ISO-Website. Unfortunately, no information on historic membership within ISO-committees is readily available”. “… ISO stated that this data could be only reconstructed from committee protocols in its archive”.[vii]
To better understand the development and diffusion of international standardization, it would be helpful if IEC, ISO and ITU and researchers cooperate in compiling and publishing historical time series for the most important standardization statistics. Such panel data would facilitate scientific research on standards and help inform the standards community itself and policymakers about trends in the different areas of standardization.
Given the increasing importance of data in our society, the international standardization community should continue working on data openness and transparency. Metrology (BIPM[viii] and OIML) and accreditation cooperation (IAF and ILAC)[ix] face similar challenges. The global quality infrastructure requires a joint effort to provide a publicly available integrated database for evidence-based policymaking and strategic investment.
* Acknowledgements to Glenn Bosmans, Jan-Henrik Tiedemann, Reinhard Weissinger and Siglinde Kaiser for their helpful comments. The full responsibility for all statements and possible mistakes remains with the author.
[o] Seaman, John (2020) China and the new geopolitics of technical standardization, French Institute of International Relations.
[iv] QI Data: The ISO Survey of Management System Standard Certifications
[vii] Blind, K./ van Laer, M. (2021) Paving the path: drivers of standardization participation at ISO, in: The Journal of Technology Transfer, 1-20
[viii] BIPM’s Key Comparison Database, https://qi4d.org/2020/06/26/bipms-key-comparison-database/
[ix] Availability and Transparency of Accreditation Data,
[iv] https://www.itu.int/en/mediacentre/backgrounders/Pages/itu-study-groups.aspx (retrieved 18/01/2022)
[v] https://www.iso.org/standards-catalogue/browse-by-ics.html (retrieved 14/01/2022)
[vii] https://www.itu.int/itu-t/recommendations/search.aspx?type=30&status=Z&pg_size=20 (retrieved 14/01/2022)
[viii] Note that the IEC Affiliate scheme enables countries adopt the existing standards (at no charge. The countries however will not have participated in the development of these standards, https://www.iec.ch/acp (retrieved 14/01/2022)
[xiii] https://www.iec.ch/conformity-assessment/ca-systems (retrieved 14/01/2022)
[xiv] https://www.iec.ch/conformity-assessment/ca-systems (retrieved 14/01/2022)