International Standards Key To Helping The World With Many Issues, ISO Says

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International standards can help economic, societal and environmental issues, Rob Steele, secretary general of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), told a press briefing this week. The organisation also has interests in intellectual property protection.

Although seemingly boring and remote for many people, international standards are of prime importance and cover most areas of everyday life, both in the private sphere and in the business arena, said Steele, ranging from credit cards to cars, from playground equipment to industrial containers.

ISO is a Geneva-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) and has 163 members, representing 98 percent of the world’s gross national income, and 97 percent of the world population, he said during a 16 May press conference on how ISO international standards help achieve public policies and business objectives.

The ISO is constantly creating new standards and upgrading older ones. Their current portfolio is more than 19000 standards. In the last five years, 31 new technical groups were established, according to Steele. Those new groups are working on a variety of areas such as sustainable development in communities, railway applications, risk management, fireworks, biometrics, biogas, natural gas fuelling station, and carbon capture and storage.

According to ISO, the organisation “launches the development of new standards in response to sectors and stakeholders that express a clearly established need for them.” ISO standards are developed by technical committees gathering “experts from the industrial, technical and business sectors which have asked for the standards.” Technical committees might also include representatives of government agencies, testing laboratories, consumer associations, NGOs, and academic circle.

IP and Standards, Work with WIPO

The ISO standards are not legally binding, Steele said, but in some cases, country regulators “refer to ISO standards as an example of good practice.” For example, he said, “a building regulation might say you must comply with local regulations and one way of complying with that is to comply with the ISO standard.”

The standards developed by the technical committees are copyrighted and belong to ISO, Steele said. This copyright protection “helps us to promulgate the standard so people know that there is a clear copyright associated” with our standards. And more importantly, he added, “it also allows us to update our standards because in many cases technologies are moving along and our standards need to be reviewed and updated. We review and update our standards at least every five to seven years and we must have the opportunity and the right to do that.”

ISO has a “very good relationship” with the World Intellectual Property Organization on several levels, Steele said. “WIPO is understanding clearly the value of voluntary international standards and we have a memorandum of understanding with them on that,” he added.

“We also cooperate and look at IP protection and the opportunity to develop standards around that, in particular on cyber space and the internet,” Steele said. ISO and WIPO could perhaps work “even more closely” on the area of piracy, in particular on the internet and associated with IP protection, he said, adding that the aim of that protection is not so much the protection of revenues but also answers a concern on health and safety.

“Standards are pirated, made available on the internet using illegal websites and people have no idea if those standards” are accurate or not, Steele said.” “Safety to society is also an issue that we discuss with WIPO,” he added.

Social Responsibility Standardised?

There is a shift in the way the world sees sustainability and social responsibility, Steele said. Today, for the most progressive companies, both concepts are a source of competitive advantage, and a business opportunity.

Launched on 1 November, ISO 26000 standard on guidance on social responsibility, “provides guidance to both business and public sector organisations on social responsibility,” according to the ISO website.

ISO 26000 is the product of an international consensus on a definition of social responsibility and addresses core subjects of social responsibility: community involvement and development, human rights, labour practices, the environment, fair operating practices, consumer issues. The standard was developed by engaging different groups of stakeholder groups among which were government, labour, consumers and NGOs, as well as over 400 experts from 99 ISO member countries.

According Steele’s presentation, the definition of social responsibility in ISO 26000 is as follows: responsibility of an organisation for the impacts of its decisions and activities on society and the environment, through transparent and ethical behaviour that:

– contributes to sustainable development, including health and the welfare of society;
– takes into account the expectations of stakeholders;
– is in compliance with applicable law and consistent with international norms of behaviour; and
– is integrated throughout the organisation and practised in its relationships

This standard, however cannot be used for certification, Steele said. Some 36 countries have adopted ISO 26000 and 17 more are planning its adoption, he said.

Standards for Better Energy Management

Steele also presented ISO 50001 on energy management systems, launched on 15 June 2011.
The standard is aiming to provide public and private sector organisations “with management strategies to increase energy efficiency, reduce costs and improve energy performance,” according to the ISO website.

The newly developed standard is helping reduce energy consumption without negative effects on operations, Steele said, adding that early adopters of the standards were reporting substantial benefits.

Steele concluded: “The standards that ISO develops are international and built on consensus. Anyone can participate through the ISO members and the results are very pragmatic solutions that help the world address some of the very key issues that we are all facing.”

Catherine Saez may be reached at

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