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This standard will have more signatories than the Paris Agreement – but you've probably never heard of it

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Try to talk to the average person on the street about international safety standards and they will probably give you a blank look. Product and manufacturing rules and regulations have never been the most exciting conversation starter. But standards are actually incredibly important. Whether you realise it or not they shape the world that we live in, and how we interact with it. And Standard ISO9001 is one that affects every single item you use, whether at home, in work, or elsewhere.

Standards don’t exactly have a small remit: as mentioned, these rules apply to all products that we use, and dictate how they are designed. They apply to everything from the latest technology like smartphones and laptops to the more mundane things in life. The house you live in, for example – the biggest single purchase that many of us will make in our lifetime – has to conform to dozens of rules on things you might not even consider, like the quality of glass used in windows.

Basically put, standards are guidelines and documents that tell companies what they must do to achieve accreditation. In effect it’s like an organisation passing an examination and gaining a qualification. These standards cover a whole range of things, from the way a company makes sure its products meet a certain quality (ISO9001 standard), to environmental management (ISO14001 standard), and health and safety (ISO45001 standard).

Admittedly, it’s still not the most juiciest of topics. But these global rules make sure companies across the world are manufacturing and building everything from contact lenses to oil rigs in a way that is not only safe, but of the highest quality. In effect standards act as a benchmark and indicate that a company is serious about what it does and how it does it.

And though many people aren’t aware that these specific standards exist – who can blame them because there are 22,000 of them that apply all across the world after all – most will agree that making sure businesses design and deliver products and services in the best way for the world, and their customers is of paramount importance.

Today, manufacturers all over the world are expected to stick to the International Standards Organisation’s quality management standard ISO9001. This governs the management of all quality processes from buying in materials, processing them and handing the finished item over to customers. Each stage and step is controlled so that consumers can be assured the company that is selling to them has the credibility and processes in place to offer the best quality.

However, there is one big drawback to these kinds of regulations: they can be quite complex for a layman to understand. A laptop computer for example is supported by 251 technical standards alongside ISO9001 which govern the quality processes employed when it is being assembled.

Also, no standards are set in stone forever: understandably they change and evolve to meet the demands of new technology, and changes in the way that businesses work. Despite this complexity, millions of businesses worldwide have become certified to ISO9001 – the most popular standard in the world. Without this standard it is unlikely that any business would have survived.

Just think of a smartphone: it wasn’t that long ago that some of its features, like touchscreen or fingerprint recognition, were regarded as new and novel technologies. Without a new standard to ensure that companies were using the best tech to begin with, improving its features would have been a hard task. Features would not have evolved and the quality of the product would not be as high. By having a rule like ISO9001 in place, companies like Apple, Samsung or the like can build on the best specifications and create new ways of harnessing innovation that keep up with what demanding customers want and need. Without ISO9001, it would be near impossible to ensure that all the products on offer from a company tomorrow are better than today’s.

But times are changing, and the ISO is now seeking to support ISO9001 by giving more help to managers with the guideline ISO9004. This standard will help businesses design the best processes to create new products, and thrive in an international marketplace.

When implemented, over 200 countries will sign up to ISO9004. By comparison, only 175 countries signed up to the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2016. And, unlike some international treaties, no extra domestic laws are needed to ratify ISO9004, so as soon as the standard is signed, every company within those 200 countries will be expected to stick to it.

The ConversationNicholas Rich does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

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