Building trust is a must

Focus on conformity assessment at WSC Workshop

By Claire Marchand

What is conformity assessment (CA)? Why is it important? Why is it inevitably linked to standards? Does it really add value to products and systems? Does it have a role in fighting counterfeit goods? Does it facilitate access to markets and trade? Those are just a few of the many questions that were raised during the World Standards Cooperation (WSC) Workshop on Conformity Assessment that took place in Geneva, Switzerland, on 1-2 December 2015. 

Coin Standards and conformity assessment are like two sides of a coins: only together do they deliver real value

Organized jointly by IEC, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) under the banner of the WSC, the event gave participants the opportunity to discover numerous aspects of conformity assessment and the benefits manufacturers, suppliers, regulators and consumers can derive from the extensive and generalized use of CA. 

Two sides of a coin

In his opening speech, IEC General Secretary & CEO Frans Vreeswijk summed it all up:

“Standards provide the measurement and rating methods that allow meaningful verification and testing to take place. Conformity assessment brings the written word in Standards to the real world. It helps demonstrate proof of conformity to a Standard. In this sense, Standards and conformity assessment are like two sides of a coin and only together are they able to deliver real value.” 

The complementarity of Standards and CA is a fact no matter what type of CA – first-, second- or third-party – is used. At its simplest, conformity assessment can be defined as “checking that products, materials, services, systems or people measure up to the specifications of a relevant standard”. 

CA is major component of world trade

Today, many products require testing for conformance with the specifications of a relevant standard or compliance with safety or other regulations before they can be put on markets. Even simple products may require supporting technical documentation that includes test data. National legislation may require testing to be carried out by independent bodies, particularly when the products concerned have health or environmental implications. In fact, conformity assessment has become an important component of world trade and is most often carried out by specialist organizations, such as inspection and certification bodies and testing laboratories. 

Large scope

The WSC Workshop on Conformity Assessment covered a wide array of issues grouped into four main topics: 

  • Energy efficiency and sustainability
  • Global conformity assessment schemes
  • Counterfeit products and certificates
  • Regulatory options and risk management 

Energy efficiency and sustainability

Reducing energy consumption and the dependency on fossil fuels is a major challenge that governments, organizations and corporations have to tackle together in order to move towards a more sustainable future. 

One of the presentations focused on the energy consumed by electrical motors, mostly in industry and the efforts made to make them more efficient. The IEC International Standard IEC 60034-30-1 classifies motors, from IE1 (standard) to IE2 (high) and IE3 (premium), the most efficient class of the three. Based on this Standard, the IE3 class has been mandatory in the European Union since January 2015. Replacing older motors by the IE3 class is cost-effective and can lead to important reductions in energy consumption. 

Global conformity assessment schemes

Value is created in layers

A key outcome of this session was that the ISO/IEC 17000 series of standards, also known as the CASCO Toolbox, is the principle foundational layer for establishing reliable and consistent conformity assessment infrastructure and services. National accreditation bodies add a value layer by using the Toolbox to qualify their national CA bodies, while international organizations such as the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC) and the International Accreditation Forum (IAF) work towards achieving internationally-harmonized accreditation auditing. 

The operational model used by the IEC global CA Systems creates two additional layers of value which achieve higher  quality, consistency and reproducibility of international conformity assessment results. Not only are testing laboratories assessed for competency, like accreditation, but also for their understanding and application of the common rules and methodologies of the CA Systems. 

Regulatory authorities should seek more information on each of these different value-adding layers then apply them in appropriate ways within their regulatory policy and practice, and reap the value that they create. 

Counterfeit products and certificates

While CA doesn’t have the complete solution to the problem, it can provide some ammunition in the fight against counterfeit goods: document authentication, retailer/dealer certification, market surveillance and testing. While CA cannot fight corrupt customs officials or smuggling networks, it can be used effectively to detect fraudulent documents during the importation process or counterfeit goods when they reach the market. 

While the issue of tackling substandard counterfeit goods is crucial for developing countries, it is also true that market surveillance is a costly operation, often beyond the limited resources of many countries. The suggestion was made to establish a centralized international information exchange to network data about counterfeit goods. Counterfeits found in one country usually surface in several others as well. Knowing what to look for is a first step towards the eradication of counterfeiting activities. 

Regulatory options and risk management

In 2015 the World Trade Organization (WTO) celebrated the 20th anniversary of its Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Agreement. During these past two decades, the aim was to get member states to harmonize the use of International Standards as the basis for technical requirements in national regulations. In future, greater focus would need to be applied to the pursuit of harmonizing CA requirements across the world. The principles of the TBT Agreement say that conformity assessment should be appropriate, transparent and not cause unnecessary technical barriers. How that translates into practice is still not very clear. 

One of the outcomes of this section was that a risk-based regulatory system would be aligned with the WTO TBT principles and that the level of CA requirements would be appropriate, transparent and not cause unnecessary barriers to trade. 

All about trust

The closing session was an open discussion between the event moderators which all participants were invited to join. They generally agreed that CA is all about building trust among consumers, regulators and industry. 

They also recognized that good CA relies on good standards and that better processes should be developed to allow and encourage wider stakeholder participation in standards development, including academic, regulators, end users, consumers and so forth.

The quality of standards and a potential overlap between standards development organizations (SDOs) was another issue raised during the closing session. The WSC itself can act as a practical mechanism to minimize the issue, at least between IEC, ISO and ITU. 

Attendees show appreciation

Close to 140 participants from 35 countries around the world attended the WSC Workshop. They represented governments, trade and non-governmental organizations, the private sector and academia. 

According to the feedback they provided, the event as a whole was a great success. They expressed the wish to have similar events in the future, possibly every three years, in other locations around the world, preferably developing countries. Smaller events focusing on CA could be organized annually in conjunction with the UNECE WP.6 meeting.

More information on the workshop website:

Coin Standards and conformity assessment are like two sides of a coins: only together do they deliver real value
Industrial motors Replacing older motors by the IE3 class is cost-effective and can lead to important reductions in energy consumption
Trade Panama Canal Conformity assessment is a major component of world trade
Genuine Apple charger Close up of an Apple charger... (Photo: Suffolktradingstandards's Blog)
Fake Apple charger ...and its counterfeit version - note the spelling mistakes (Photo: Suffolktradingstandards's Blog)