Governance by Standards:
Opportunities for Civil Society Organizations

ECOLOGIA November 2004 Briefing Paper Prepared for the Ford Foundation

Executive Summary

International standards were originally created as voluntary guidelines for promoting the compatibility of manufactured parts. In the last decade they have begun to shape consumer products and services. Standards now are used to implement public policy and legislation.

As standards impact the public interest, civil society organizations have taken a greater interest in participating in their making. Civil society organizations’ involvement in the standards world now varies from marginal to full involvement. However, the nature of this involvement is ad hoc and the rules of engagement ambiguous. To some degree this ambiguity reflects the status of other stakeholders in standards making, including business and government. As their policy impact increases, the quality and credibility of standards will depend more and more on the endorsement and participation of all sectors of society. Civil society organizations have a unique contribution to make in developing working models of balanced representation and constructive participation in standards making.

As a form of global governance, the standards making world has the potential to contribute new models of actually engaging a broad range of countries and stakeholders in developing consensus based rules of conduct. This is particularly important as many of the critical issues of the 21st century, such as trade and climate change, will be resolved one standard at a time.


Personal and Policy Implications

When you use your ATM card to get local currency from a bank kiosk in a foreign country, you benefit from successful international standards making. The magnetic strip on your card, the ATM machine, and bank procedures used to verify available funds in your account, all have been constructed in accordance with uniform guidelines created by international organizations that make standards. By contrast, if you return to your hotel room and plug your computer into an outlet, you may need to use an adapter to make the electrical socket connection, and your computer may have to adjust the voltage. In this case you experienced a missed opportunity in the field of standards making: a failure to agree on the shape of electrical outlets and electrical current for appliances.

While standards affect us personally, on a broader level they are impacting the major global issues of our time. For example:

  • International trade controversies center on the question of whose health, safety and environmental standards will be supported or rejected in Technical Barriers to Trade disputes before the WTO.
  • Biodiversity and global warming are being addressed by an NGO initiated sustainable forestry standard.
  • Corporate innovation, and even survival, can be determined by product standards that determine which competing technology will prevail in the marketplace.
  • Indigenous cultures are under homogenizing pressure as the colors and forms of traditional handicrafts are standardized for mass markets. (See Endnote 1)

For anyone wanting to leverage global issues, standards are the lever, and the standards arena is the place to stand.

International Standards and Standards Making Organizations

Standards conjure images of “something established by authority, custom or general consent as a model or example”. In fact, “international standards” that shape the modern world often have a tenuous claim to authority, may conflict with custom, and are frequently made with the consent of only a few.

International standards started as manufacturers’ guidelines to ensure the compatibility and quality of manufactured items, with the goals of encouraging trade and increasing efficiency of production. They began with industry initiated voluntary guidelines promoting the compatibility of simple objects such as nuts and bolts. The standards process is now expanding exponentially, into areas as diverse as the safety and reliability of condoms, environmental management, fair trade and labor practices, privacy, and regulation of GMOs.

The organizations that make international standards are created in various ways.

  • Many are entirely self-created and self-authorizing associations created by industries. The International Accounting Standards Board is an example.
  • Some are created and authorized by a single national governmental body, such as ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. It is a California based not-for-profit organization spun off from the U.S. Commerce Department. ICANN standardizes and controls the allocation of Internet addresses and names globally.
  • Civil society organizations such as the Fair Trade Federation and Global Reporting Initiative create standards to promote sustainable development and ethical principles.
  • Other standards originate from international governmental bodies. The Codex Alimentarius, which develops food safety standards, was created by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Health Organization.
  • A few standards making organizations are hybrids, such as the International Organization for Standardization, or ISO, the world’s pre-eminent standards organization. ISO has made over 14,000 standards since its founding in 1946. It is technically a non-governmental organization. ISO consists of members who are primarily national standards making organizations. (See Endnote 2)

Until recently, standards making organizations were initiated by industries and governments, and operated with marginal participation by civil society organizations. But as standards touch more and more issues with significant public policy implications, the need, demand, and opportunities for public participation have increased. More and more international standards organizations are developing provisions for “observer” or “liaison” members to participate in standards making by receiving and commenting on draft standards. While most observers and liaisons are industry trade associations and other international agencies, the number of civil society “stakeholder” participants is increasing. In a potentially trend-setting move, ISO has recently announced a pro-active new policy toward more balanced and inclusive stakeholder participation for developing its standard on corporate social responsibility. (See Endnote 3)

From Voluntary Standards for Industry to Regulatory Standards for All

While international standards began as voluntary initiatives by and for industry, they are rapidly becoming a prominent feature of the governance landscape where policy making and regulatory authority meet. Like an invisible tectonic force, they are elevating the importance of regulations whose function was, until recently, merely to implement the intent of national legislation. Now the WTO’s Technical Barriers to Trade dispute resolution process can invoke international standards to overturn national regulations, if the latter restrict trade unfairly and unnecessarily. Similar provisions are written into NAFTA and the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. In such cases national policy can be trumped by standards making organizations.

The European Union and the US Congress are linking standards directly to legislation and making them part of the regulatory process. (See Endnote 4) In the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act, the US Congress requires federal agencies to use voluntary consensus based standards to carry out their policies whenever possible. Before a Federal Agency of the U.S. Government can even begin to create a standard on its own, it must now justify the need to the Office of Management and Budget.

“Voluntary” standards are now being used in ways that give them legal status at national and international levels of governance. (See Endnote 5)

Challenges and Opportunities for Civil Society Organizations

Outsourcing Regulation, or Devolution?

“In the most advanced countries, the vast majority of standards published are in fact national adoptions of regional and international standards”– Allen Bryden, Sec.General of ISO, May 2004. (See Endnote 6)

Translating government policy into detailed regulations and standards has become increasingly burdensome as the complexity of modern society increases. This reality encourages the outsourcing of the making of rules, regulations, and standards. The creation of ICANN is an example. Volunteers from the U.S. Government and National Science Foundation managed the Internet in its infancy. The task became overwhelming when it came to involve standardizing and coordinating millions of domain names and resolving webname copyright issues. Then the U.S. Department of Commerce decided to outsource and privatize the work; it authorized the creation of the non-profit organization ICANN.

The World Bank and IMF both defer to a host of standards making bodies, including “accounting; auditing; anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT); banking supervision; corporate governance; data dissemination; fiscal transparency; insolvency and creditor rights; insurance supervision; monetary and financial policy transparency; payments systems; and securities regulation”. (See Endnote 7)

Such outsourcing of regulatory authority has raised questions of accountability, transparency, and balanced representation of stakeholder interests. Such concerns cut across all sectors of society, and are explored later in this paper.

Standards making also raises issues beyond those associated with the outsourcing of regulatory authority. Some representatives of industry, government, and the policy community have attempted to use voluntary standards as alternatives to mandatory government regulation or to “command and control”. Others go further and attempt to use voluntary standards as a mechanism of governmental devolution. Several developing countries considered adopting ISO’s Environmental Management System standard (ISO 14001) in lieu of creating national environmental regulatory systems when this standard first appeared. This wholesale outsourcing concept was dropped when developing country regulators discovered that ISO 14001 is a “process standard” requiring only the development of a system to manage environmental impacts, that it contained no specific environmental performance criteria, and that it did not explicitly require compliance with existing environmental regulations. This chapter in the history of international standards can be explained primarily in terms of a lack of understanding of both standards and government regulation by inexperienced bureaucrats.

However, in 1996, the Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Resources advocated certification to ISO 14001 as an alternative to regulatory compliance monitoring. He fully understood the broad policy implications of his idea when he stated that companies having an ISO 14001 plan in effect could look forward to the end of visits from regulators. This overstatement sent shock waves through the environmental community, stunned many in the Secretary’s own agency, and raised high hopes among some in industry. Environmental consulting companies specializing in ISO 14001 quoted the Secretary on the front of their brochures. The Pennsylvania Secretary’s policy statement was retracted before it could be implemented, but the issue it highlighted continues to be debated. There is a fundamental and unresolved disagreement over the degree to which “command and control” government regulations can and should be replaced with voluntary standards. When the Bush administration advocates voluntary industry standards for reducing greenhouse gases as an alternative to the Kyoto Protocol, the continuing significance of this struggle comes into focus. The scope of governance itself could be revolutionized one standard at a time.

Influence in the Standards Arena

Among civil society organizations, it is commonly understood that corporations dominate the international standards arena. Within standards organizations created by and for industry self-regulation, it is true that corporations often exert influence that is direct, dominant, and exclusive. This level of influence can exceed that commonly found in the creation of government-initiated regulations or in drafting legislation. (See Endnote 8) Such influence is not surprising given the fact that these standards making bodies are created, managed, and supported by industry to serve their needs. They are industry associations.

Even standards making bodies that are not industry associations are highly susceptible to corporate domination. Some of the structural reasons for this domination are examined later in this paper. However, before examining the roots of corporate influence it is important to look more closely at that which is too often assumed to be monolithic.

  • First, it is important to recognize that while there may be a convergence of interests within one industrial sector, for example among petroleum companies, competition between related sectors can be intense. For example, alternative energy companies may have more shared interests with government and civil society organization leaders than with oil companies. ECOLOGIA found an ally in the coal industry during a difficult series of negotiations over a greenhouse gas accounting standard. Oil companies were resisting clear public reporting; a coal industry representative saw that a robust standard would gain credibility with regulators and the public. This could be a historic opportunity to reap benefits from new coal technology that would compete with petroleum.
  • Second, even within sectors such as the petroleum industry that is dominated by a small number of multi-nationals, a convergence of many interests does not translate into a monolithic bloc working toward a single set of narrowly defined interests. After nearly a decade of collectively refuting the validity of scientific claims about global warming, petroleum companies broke ranks. Exxon-Mobil continues to reject claims about the threat of continued fossil fuel use while British Petroleum is recasting its “BP” image as “Beyond Petroleum.”
  • Third, broadly based service sector industries may present more of an entrenched interest than more high profile manufacturers. A recent study of ISO stakeholder participation documents that consultants, not manufacturers, are the single most highly represented group on several ISO technical committees. (See Endnote 9) Consultants have interests that are distinct from, if not at odds with, those of their business clients. Consultants sell services interpreting and implementing ISO standards to large enterprises. Standards proliferation, jargon, and complexity are not a concern for consultants, and may even present a market opportunity for them. Thus many businesses, especially small and medium sized ones, may find common ground with civil society organizations that have an interest in standards simplicity and understandability.

Predictions of where corporate interests lie and alliances may be found are further confounded by the growing acceptance of corporate social responsibility. Individual company policies on standards development and implementation can be more responsive to the public interest than policies set forth by government. Highly visible corporations such as Dupont are documenting multi-hundred-million dollar savings from voluntary greenhouse gas reductions programs working in advance of national regulatory mandates. Companies such as Alcan, the giant Canadian aluminum products corporation, are using international standards as a platform for a corporate mission that takes them well beyond the minimal requirements. Such examples of “doing good” and making a profit simultaneously are shifting the interest of some corporate players toward supporting tougher standards in alliance with civil society organizations.

Responding to corporate influence in the standards making arena requires a highly nuanced strategy from civil society organizations. The following case study illustrates the complex interaction of influence in standards making.

A Case Study in Standards Creation in ISO

In June 2002, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) began to develop a standard for the measurement, reporting and verification of greenhouse gas emissions. Technical Committee 207 (TC 207), the largest of several hundred committees within ISO, assumed the task. The standard is intended to assist companies in complying with national climate change regulations, to play a key role in international greenhouse gas emissions trading, and to facilitate investment of billions of dollars in greenhouse gas reduction projects in developing countries.

First, TC 207 established a Working Group (WG5) at the international organizational level. WG5 consists of a handful of ISO members: consultants, government policy makers, corporate representatives, and one liaison member civil society organization. They were charged with drafting the new standard and working as independent experts - not reflecting national or industry policy. Early drafts of the standard overcame the initial skepticism of climate change experts and appeared on track for creating a rigorous but broadly applicable tool for contributing to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. ECOLOGIA, the CSO liaison member, wrote, inserted, and successfully defended strong language about public reporting. Members for whom climate change and greenhouse gas reduction are priorities or concerns (Australia, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, Japan and the USA) created national WG5 “mirror committees” in their own countries. These national committees carefully tracked and commented on drafts of the emerging standard.

Corporate influence is most evident in these national WG5 mirror committees. The U.S. delegation chair and a majority of committee members represent industries or trade associations concerned about the regulation of greenhouse gases. Exxon-Mobil, Halliburton, and the American Petroleum Institute advocate minimal greenhouse gas regulation and little or no public reporting. They and their allies took an increasingly leading role in shaping the U.S. delegation’s policy, and appearing as “delegation experts” at international meetings of WG5. By contrast, the Canadian delegation operates within a balanced representation framework with minimum and maximum levels of representation from government, business and civil society.

In July 2004 a draft of the greenhouse gas standard was sent to all of the 74 national delegation members of TC 207 “for comment”. The comments were collected and processed at week-long WG 5 sub-committee meetings of TC 207 in September. During these meetings new players, both from petroleum industries and environmental CSOs, entered the negotiations. Several petroleum company representatives attempted to present their own positions as their country’s position at committee meetings. The integrity of the standard standards making process appeared to be threatened. Then CSOs began working with national delegation leaders to rein-in corporate representatives who were breaking the rules about consistency with delegation policy. CSO experts, national delegation experts, and ISO standards bureaucrats stood together to protect the integrity of a fragile standards making process and a standard on greenhouse gases that could make a significant contribution to addressing global warming.

Civil Society Influence in the International Standards Arena

While corporate influence in standards making is highly significant, civil society organizations exercise considerable and unique power in the international standards arena.

  • Civil society organizations are valued in many standards making forums because they contribute technical expertise and a consumer perspective.
  • Civil society organizations have credibility that standards makers cannot bestow on market-sensitive standards by themselves.
  • As regulatory authority is formally outsourced to standards makers, the governments delegating this authority are imposing consensus and stakeholder requirements on standards making bodies.

These sources of influence enhance the ability of civil society organizations to influence the substantive content of individual standards. In addition, civil society organizations also have unique capabilities to broadly impact the evolution of standards in general. They are developing experience in the standards making arena across multiple sectors, as opposed to standards makers from industry and government who are normally hyper-specialized engineers or bureaucrats with little concept of global governance. As a result it is civil society organizations who are proactively raising, defining, and leading with comprehensive solutions to problems of stakeholder participation in the standards world.

Civil Society Engagement of Standards – Strength in Diversity

Civil society organizations engaging standards are as diverse as the standards. Civil society organizations engage international standards directly at the international level, and indirectly at national levels.

National level intervention in international standards making runs counter to intuition, but as two examples in this paper have suggested, national level work could be effective and has been underestimated. As outlined in the case study on a greenhouse gas standard, we noted that the U.S. national delegation to the ISO committee making the standard has teetered on the brink of playing a spoiler role. More active involvement by civil society organizations within the U.S. delegation could approximate the balanced representation formally built into the Canadian national delegation. Such a balance could minimize or even neutralize the heavy hand of the small number of energy companies shaping U.S. delegation policy. Similarly, the most effective strategy for influencing pending WTO decisions about which international standards will be deemed “relevant” may be through national level and EU level channels. These national leverage points are more accessible for most CSOs than are international forums. And national contact points do not involve the obstacles outlined later in this paper.

Models of civil society organization engagement of standards vary.

  • Small and medium sized international organizations such as ECOLOGIA engage one or two standards making committees and specialize in the substance of a standard and a particular standards making organization. As a result of long-term involvement, some of these organizations develop broader interests in standards and global governance.
  • Other CSOs engage standards making primarily with an emphasis on policy making. They attempt to influence standards organizations with position papers, advocacy and a focus on process. Most of these CSOs avoid direct involvement in actual standards making.
  • Large international CSOs engage standards organizations when a specific standards issue matches their agenda. They often participate briefly and marginally, though intensely and aggressively, in the making of a particular standard. They typically do not engage standards in order to contribute to global governance, perhaps because they are able to promote their agendas on a “bi-lateral” CSO - national government level, or by engaging more familiar UN based agencies.
  • The European Union has authorized and funded two umbrella organizations of civil society organizations, in order to guarantee and routinize civil society involvement with European standards making organizations. Occasionally these umbrella organizations engage international standards bodies such as ISO, but this is really not their mandate. The Pan-European Coalition of Environmental Citizens Organisations (ECO-Forum) was established in 1998 and is composed of 200 environmental and health focused CSOs who develop consensus policies which are then presented to the appropriate EU bodies, including standards making organizations. The European Association for the Coordination of Consumer Representation in Standardisation (ANEC) was established in 1995. It represents a broad range of European consumer organizations within the European standards making arena. ANEC is budgeted directly with EU funds and has approximately a one million dollar annual budget.

Two case studies of civil society organization influence in standards creation
“Most parents in Europe consider baby walkers as a safe place to put their small children. Research undertaken by European consumer organisations, however, showed that baby walkers on sale in the EU might seriously harm young children. The European standard on baby walkers did not take into account that a young child in a baby walker has an increased mobility and reach, causing severe accidents. On the initiative of ANEC, the standard on baby walkers was changed to include the stair fall hazard and the increased mobility of the child.

“Several people were injured because the rotating disk of their juice extractors broke. ANEC suggested that a chemical test should be undertaken. The results of this test revealed that cracks in the plastic and corrosion of the rotating disk appear when concentrated solutions of citric acid and at the same time dishwasher detergent are used. Thanks to ANEC lobbying efforts, the standard for juice extractors was revised in order to make the product safer.” (See Endnote 10)

It is important to recognize that like corporations, civil society organizations often have widely diverse interests. While civil society organizations are somewhat united on many standards process issues, their sector specific perspectives can be narrow. For example, consumer organizations represent consumers and consumer values. These values may conflict with the sustainable development values of environmental CSOs. The wildlife habitat preservation values of environmental CSOs occasionally conflict with indigenous economic development initiatives. If civil society organizations are to achieve the broadest possible perspective on standards and to represent their collective wisdom, then environmental, health, consumer and labor organizations must all be involved somewhat equally.

CSOs approach standards making both from the top down and bottom up. Many civil society organizations have approached the standards arena with a strategic focus on structural reform. They attempt to engage the standards body administrators and executive bodies in re-negotiating the rules of the game. This is often perceived as threatening and time consuming by standards making insiders, especially if the structural reformers appear to focus only on process issues and do not contribute substantively to standards making. It is therefore highly important to involve civil society organizations who work effectively as experts at the negotiating table. Substantively engaged CSOs provide examples of why stakeholder involvement should be increased; they validate structural reform efforts. But even more importantly, substantively engaged CSOs institutionalize reform by changing practices and procedures within working committees one practice at a time. Given the highly flexible “constitution” of most standards bodies, this amounts to structural reform from a common law perspective- i.e. change the practice, then recognize and institutionalize the de facto reform.

The Comparative Advantage of Civil Society Organizations

There is an alternative standards making arena created primarily by civil society organizations. In this arena, organizations such as the Fair Trade Federation (FTF) develop “ethical standards” for trade and investment based on principles of social justice. These standards connect with the public. For example, the sports apparel industry was shocked into accepting fair labor standards initiated by civil society organizations when college and university students across the United States insisted that their athletic uniforms be made in non-sweatshop settings. Consumers are learning to shop for “Fair Trade Coffee” more quickly than they are learning to shop for products made by companies with ISO 9000 quality management certification.

The flip side of ethical standards approval branding is “negative branding”. It is another leverage point for civil society organizations in the standards arena. Negative branding is every CEO’s nightmare. No CEO wants to see the company featured in a major news story about unfair or irresponsible corporate behavior. Consequently, “risk assessment”, broadly construed, is a critical driver for corporate adherence to both industry and ethical standards. Risk no longer includes only potential environmental pollution liability or worker health problems. It also means protecting the company’s brand name, which is often one of its most valuable assets. A former chair of the US delegation to ISO once lectured CSOs who were complaining about their lack of influence by reminding them that the very biggest corporations were the biggest and easiest targets. As he noted, it is easier to hit one giant target than to aim at hundreds of little ones. The implications of his comment were that CSOs should be less hesitant to hold large corporations accountable to standards, be they industry created or CSO initiated, and that civil society organizations routinely underestimate their influence.

It is not surprising then that “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR) has recently assumed such prominence in the standards world. The movement for CSR has come largely from the realm of civil society, crossing over into the corporate world, especially in the wake of controversies such as ENRON. Until recently many market fundamentalists were arguing that corporate social responsibility is a violation of the fiduciary responsibility of a corporate board because it uses earnings to benefit non-shareholders. However, the trend now is to introduce the concept in MBA programs and in corporate annual reporting. The discussion of CSR has now moved onto the issue of, “how do we do it?”.

Answering this question is complicated by the number of competing CSR standards. They are issued by civil society organizations on an almost weekly basis. Just cataloging them is a job in itself. This creativity illustrates both the strength and weakness of civil society organizations. On the one hand, CSOs are close to community values and are able to articulate them in their diversity. On the other hand, civil society organizations are often oblivious to marketing their standards. The multitude of standards they have proposed has created something akin to a standards Tower of Babel. Companies are left wondering which standard to use and be certified to.

ISO is poised to address this confusion. It is on track to develop a corporate social responsibility standard. The process will begin in 2005 and will take two years. It promises to be a watershed event in standards making for several reasons:

  • Corporate social responsibility involves financial, environmental, and social justice issues which are expected to attract an unusually broad range of civil society and United Nations organizations.
  • ISO is making extraordinarily unprecedented arrangements for new stakeholder involvement processes to accommodate the interest of CSOs.
  • In the past ISO appropriated the standards initiatives of others, revised and “harmonized” the array of existing standards, and issued a new standard under its banner. It will be difficult and perilous for organizations engaged in CSR work to ignore ISO’s initiative.
  • The ISO harmonization process presents a double-edged sword that could cut in either of two ways. Harmonization could reduce multiple CSR standards to their “lowest common denominator”. Without effective civil society organization participation to defend the spirit of CSR, the ISO standard could dilute the intent of an entire movement. On the other hand, ISO’s consensus process provides an opportunity to identify common elements in CSR that could be clarified and identified in a manner that would provide a solid core or foundation for the global practice of CSR.
  • Because ISO has an almost unchallengeable position in the standards marketplace, its CSR standard almost certainly will become a major, if not the major, face of CSR within the corporate community.

This chapter in standards making could be the beginning of increased collaboration between civil society organizations’ standards initiatives and the industry dominated standards world. Or it could be the beginning of a widening gulf between the two. The outcome will depend largely upon the resources available to and the capacity of participating civil society organizations.

Obstacles to Effective Civil Society Participation in Standards

Effective participation in governance requires that those governed share a common understanding of how they are governed and how they may participate. Only then can they develop and share institutional memory and capacity. Global governance, and especially the arcane world of standards, is a governance subculture entirely outside of the comprehension and life experience of most members of emerging global civil society. This is illustrated by emails that ECOLOGIA routinely receives from CSO leaders asking how to complain about a seriously polluting factory that has an ISO 14001 environmental management system certification banner proudly displayed over the entrance of corporate headquarters. We cannot offer a “complaints line” telephone number for TC 207, the ISO committee that made the standard.

Attempts to hold standards makers accountable, or at least inform them when their standards fail, are disorienting for those whose experience is with traditional governance structures. But participating in the process of standards making can be even more confusing and discouraging for the following reasons:

  • The process of creating standards is consensus-based in spirit but is formally based on parliamentary procedure modified by each standards making body’s unique subculture and rules. (See Endnote 11)
  • Formal procedural rules and guidelines are routinely suspended in favor of informal arrangements agreed upon among colleagues, or unilaterally invoked by committee chairs.
  • Meetings are typically conducted in rapidly spoken standards-jargon-rich English.
  • Frequent meetings hosted at revolving sites around the world make the cost of participation prohibitive.

Most of these obstacles apply to most developing countries, and even to some OECD nations, as well as to civil society organizations.

As a consequence of the extraordinary complexity of the standards world, most of the civil society organizations that engage it have become hyper-specialized. They build their capacity to engage a particular standards arena and immerse themselves in its jargon, idiosyncrasies, and specialized technical issues. As a result it is difficult for most of them to exchange information and experience among themselves and to develop a general body of wisdom about working in the standards world.

Introducing common ground rules in the standards world and creating a professional core of CSOs to engage standards makers can be an obstacle or an opportunity. “Routinization” (See Endnote 12) of the standards world will undoubtedly provide new opportunities for CSO engagement. But routinization may well also create new obstacles, especially for those on the social and economic periphery in developing countries. They do not have the skills needed to operate within a cosmopolitan civil society bureaucracy. They may also not share the cultural values of that bureaucracy. Their small and medium size enterprises and agricultural production are the core of an economic sector most likely to be squeezed out by international standards based trade.

Standards, Fair Trade and Sustainable Development

International standards have their roots in developed, primarily European and North American, countries. The economic and political interests of these developed countries are reflected in international standards; the processes of standards making are familiar to these countries. It is not surprising therefore that the developing countries of the “Global South” often view international standards as a trade barrier, or as a tool for developed countries to dictate the terms of trade and investment. Certainly WTO TBT agreements and dispute resolutions indicating that “relevant international standards” trump national standards feed this concern.

Confirming developing country concerns that standards are trade war tools, both the United States and European Union have articulated explicit strategies for globalizing their standards and getting the upper hand in world markets.

Consequently the response of developing countries is to view “certification” to international standards as the equivalent of a “green passport” for their products. (See Endnote 13) The impact of this recognition among developing countries has been twofold:

  • They are rapidly becoming the largest adopters of some international standards.
  • International standards are being transformed as they are adapted to meet the needs of developing countries. It is important to bear in mind that the critical act of certification to a standard is often governed primarily by an oversight body within each country ( a “registrar”). In some developing and transition countries there has been considerable documentation of a dilution of the certification process to the point that international standards cease to be uniformly applied.

While developing and transition countries have the potential to rewrite standards through highly unorthodox and inconsistent implementation, this need not be the case. The accession process of Central European countries to the European Union has provided numerous examples of how national wastewater disposal, access for the disabled, and food standards have been upgraded by the applications of regional standards - those of the EU. As a result, hundreds of millions of dollars have been directed to infrastructure improvements such as wastewater treatment plants, wheel chair ramps, and new food processing technologies. In these examples EU accession acted as a powerful economic and political driver for meaningful conformance to standards. Accession to the WTO could act in a similar fashion in transition and developing countries. While the WTO is less likely to monitor conformance to international standards than were EU officials, national civil society organizations working with international civil society organizations could perform this function if trained and given the resources.

If developing countries are to consistently and appropriately implement and benefit from international standards, they will need to have a sense of ownership over standards and must be able to participate meaningfully so that international standards reflect their interests. Once again civil society organizations may be able to play a key role.

Emerging civil society organizations in transition and developing countries often have their roots in the academic community, among students and professors. This population stratum has the up-to-date technical expertise, language training, and global civil society comfort level needed to participate effectively in the international standards arena. Because of their access to global civil society organizations, developing country representatives can tap into the breadth of global governance expertise emerging from this sector.

  • Civil society organizations could assist in the creation of regional standards engagement consortia of developing countries similar to the European umbrella organizations ANEC and ECO-Forum. This would reduce the cost barrier to individual developing country participation.
  • Civil society organizations could assist in the development of a comprehensive policy for national or regional engagement of standards, by identifying priority standards and key standards organizations.
  • Civil society organizations could develop cross-sectoral strategies for enhancing developing country capacity in standards arenas.
  • Civil society organizations could be expert members of national or regional delegations to standards making bodies.

A secondary consequence of providing such valuable services would be to greatly enhance the value and prestige of civil society organizations in transition countries.

In the end, sustainable development, fair trade, and corporate social responsibility will take root one standard at a time.


  1. E-mail communications with ECOLOGIA, August 2004. An international co-operative seeking to promote indigenous handicrafts by women in Asia is encouraging them to standardize their vegetable dyes and use ISO 9000 certification for color quality control so that the products can be mass marketed in the United States.
  2. ISO members in turn range from government ministries (Gostandardt in Russia) to an industry created non-governmental organization (American National Standards Association (ANSI) in the United States) and a Canadian Standards Organization that is constituted by a formula stipulating a balance of business, government and NGO members.
  3. ISO New Work Item Proposal , N26000. 2004-10-01.
  4. “Towards the Systematic Use of Non-Legal Instruments Such as Standards and Voluntary Codes in Support of Legislation” by Bruce Farquhar. Paper commissioned by Industry Canada, 2004.
  5. Errol Meidinger “Forest Certification as Environmental Law Making by Global Civil Society”.
  6. Speech, May 24, 2004 – Meeting of EASC, Euro-Asian Interstate Council for Standardization. Metrology and Sertification, held in Astana, Kazakhstan. ESAC is an intergovernmental body for coordinating standardization within the Commonwealth of Independent States..
  7. “Report on the Observance of Standards and Codes”.
  8. A small number of energy industry leaders meeting with Vice-President Dick Cheney to make energy policy and regulations without the participation of civil society organizations created political controversy in the United States and resulted in court cases. In the standards arena, a gathering of the same industries in the absence of civil society organizations is routine.
  9. “Who Develops ISO Standards? A Survey of Participation in ISO’s International Standards Development Processes” –Mari Morikawa and Jason Morrison, Pacific Institute, 2004.
  10. Success stories taken from the ANEC website-
  11. ISO’s one hundred plus technical committees are all theoretically governed by “directives” from the ISO secretariat, but are in fact unique subcultures as are the working groups within each committee.
  12. Max Weber, the German sociologist, used the term routinization to describe the transition from highly personalized or “charismatic” authority to the impersonal rules-based authority of modern society found most starkly in bureaucracy.
  13. This term has been used in conversations between ECOLOGIA staff members and those involved in standards development, training and certification in China and Lithuania.