Participating in the Standards System – What are Standards?

Standards are technical specifications or other criteria that a product, process or service must meet. Standards provide information to consumers, manufacturers and retailers, and enhance safety, reliability and performance of the products, processes and services consumers use. Standards assure consumers about reliability or other characteristics of services provided in the marketplace. Standards also give consumers more choice by allowing one firm's products to be substituted for, or combined with, those of another.

To be credible, standards must have certain attributes:

  • their development must be overseen by a recognized body
  • the development process must be open to input from all interested parties
  • the resulting standards must be documented and publicly available
  • there is usually a method for monitoring and verifying that organizations are complying with standards.

In Canada, there are thousands of domestic standards in place. Once a standard is developed by a standards development organization (SDO), the SDO may submit it to the Standards Council of Canada as a National Standard of Canada. There are more than 7 000 national standards used as the basis of commercial transactions and regulations. Canadians also participate in the development of international standards. These standards set common requirements for the global marketplace and may form the basis for national standards. Standards are also developed by regional standards bodies.

Standards are developed through a set process. Companies and individuals use and adhere to standards voluntarily, or because they are required to by law. When compliance with a standard is not mandated by law, companies and individuals follow the terms of the standards simply because it is in their interest to do so — standards improve the quality of products, processes or services, reassure customers and open up markets. Approximately two thirds of standards are voluntary.

The terms of standards may also be incorporated into government statutes and regulations, in which case companies and individuals must follow them as a matter of law. In some cases, governments initiate and participate in standards development so the standard can be included in legislation. In other cases, governments find that an existing standard can be used to deal with a public policy problem and include it in new legislation. For example, the federal law for the protection of personal information in the private sector is based on a national standard.

Types of Standards

Standards establish a wide range of requirements for products, processes and services:

  • performance specifications ensure that a product meets a prescribed test, for example, strength requirements
  • prescriptive specifications identify product characteristics, such as the thickness, type or dimensions of material. Standards may also combine performance and prescriptive requirements
  • design specifications set out the specific design or technical characteristics of a product
  • management specifications set out requirements for the processes and procedures companies put in place, such as for quality and environmental management systems.

The National Standards System

Canada's National Standards System (NSS) is the framework for developing, promoting and implementing national standards in Canada. Almost 15 000 people help write standards and hundreds of organizations specialize in testing, certification and other standards development activities.

The Standards Council of Canada (SCC), a federal Crown corporation, oversees the NSS, accrediting more than 250 organizations involved in standards development, product or service certification, testing and management systems registration in Canada. It regularly audits accredited organizations to make sure they meet detailed criteria and procedures.

A 15-member body consisting of representatives from the federal, provincial and territorial governments and a range of public and private interests, including consumer representatives, governs the SCC.

The SCC has further acknowledged the importance of the consumer viewpoint by creating the Consumer and Public Interest Committee. It comprises four consumer representatives, members of environmental, labour and occupational health and safety groups, representatives from the federal government and academia and four consumer professionals from organizations that develop standards. The Committee recommends policies to identify and monitor emerging consumer and public interest issues, promotes consumer and public interest in standards, participates in standards development and contributes to SCC volunteer recruitment and training programs. It also advises the SCC on international consumer policy issues related to standards.

Each SDO accredited by the SCC to develop standards, does so using committees representing various interests and by building consensus. These organizations may submit standards to the SCC to be recognized as National Standards of Canada. They also develop standards-related documents, such as codes, specifications and guidelines, that do not have the authority of standards.

A full list of accredited SDO's are available on the SCC website.

There are bodies that develop voluntary codes, codes of conduct, codes of practice, voluntary initiatives and other specifications that are similar to standards in Canada but that are not part of the NSS. These often serve particular markets and needs.* In some areas, particularly in electronics or computers in which technology changes quickly, a leading company or consortium develops de facto standards. These standards acquire authority or influence due to the market share of the firms that use them. They are not, however, eligible to be National Standards of Canada.

* For a more detailed discussion, see the companion document, Voluntary Codes: A Guide for Their Development and Use.

How is Conformity with Standards Assessed?

The Standards Council of Canada certifies bodies that assess how well products, processes, services and organizations conform with standards.

Certification organizations regularly conduct on-site audits and sample and test certified products, processes and services. They allow certified products and services to carry special marks that indicate that they conform to standards. There were approximately 15 certification organizations in Canada at the end of 1999.

Testing organizations determine whether a product or service meets an appropriate standard. The SCC has accredited more than 200 testing organizations in Canada based on their ability to perform tests according to recognized standards and procedures, and document their findings. These organizations include private research laboratories, government and industry facilities and most of the certification organizations.

Management systems registration organizations are relatively new. They include, for example, accredited registrars that issue registration certificates to companies that meet international standards for quality or environmental management.

The Standards Council of Canada operates an advisory committee to help it oversee conformity assessment. Two members of this group are drawn from the Consumer and Public Interest Committee described above.

International Standards

International standardization activities are becoming more important to Canadians, and the importance of Canadian consumer input in international standards forums is increasing. International standards form the basis for more than half of the National Standards of Canada. Federal government policy encourages regulators to determine whether international standards can form the basis of proposed regulations. Trade agreements (e.g. the World Trade Organization's Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade) also require governments to use international standards for regulation whenever possible.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO, based on the Greek word for equal) is one of the most important of the international standards bodies. It is a federation of national standards bodies with some 130 members, including the SCC. Its mission is to promote the development of standardization to facilitate the international exchange of goods and services. It also encourages cooperation in intellectual, scientific, technological and economic activities. The ISO does not address standardization in the electrical and electronics fields (see below).

The ISO's published standards include, among many others, those for film speed, the format of telephone and banking cards, symbols for automobile controls, and paper sizes. There are more than 2800 technical committees, subcommittees and working groups developing standards at the ISO. Committee members include representatives of industry, government, consumers, research institutes and international organizations.

Other International Standards Bodies

The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) is responsible for developing international electrical and electronic standards. The more than 50 participating countries are responsible for more than 95 percent of the world's electrical energy production, and members are drawn from national standardization bodies. The IEC develops standards for electronics, magnetics and electromagnetics, electroacoustics, telecommunications, and energy production and distribution. The IEC and ISO work cooperatively to develop standards in the information technology area through the Joint Technical Committee on Information Technology.

In addition to producing standards, the IEC creates Industry Technical Agreements (ITAs) for markets with short time lines. Industry uses ITAs when high-tech products and services do not need international standards consensus at the time of launch. Industry experts and users working together develop ITAs, which may in some cases proceed through to IEC technical committees to become standards if a market demand is foreseen.

Publicly Available Specifications are another IEC tool for meeting market demands for a rapidly developing technology. These can become de facto standards when they are approved and accepted by the international community. They are usually created by industry consortia and gain rapid acceptance in the global market.

Other international organizations developing standards include the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which is a treaty organization of approximately 160 members run by the United Nations. National governments that have signed the ITU treaty enforce and administer the standards the ITU adopts.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission is the United Nation's food standards body. Canada is one of the Commission's 150 members and actively participates in its activities. Many legislated Canadian food standards are the result of the Commission's work.

The World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations, of which Canada is a member, establishes technical regulations for the construction of motor vehicles.

The SCC coordinates Canada's participation in the international standards system. This is becoming an increasingly important part of the SCC's activities.

"Your responsibility at the meeting is to press for the adoption of Canadian positions on proposed International Standards. You also have a secondary responsibility: to advance Canada's reputation as a leading industrial nation and a respected participant in the international standardization process. Exercising diplomacy in this important forum will go a long way towards achieving that goal, and will help you form positive relationships with colleagues…." Standards Council of Canada, Guide for Canadian Delegates