The Role of Voluntary Consensus Standards

08/29/2007 | By Kirsten Ritchie

Every year, more and more building owners, tenants, and facilities managers are seeking ways to improve the environmental performance of their buildings and operations; however, one of the major challenges facing this market is the limited availability of consensus-based, science-driven, sustainable product standards that can be relied upon to deliver better, greener products to the marketplace. Fortunately, as you will learn in this two-part article (to be continued in September), the situation is rapidly changing.

All Standards are Not Created Equal
In the universe of global commerce, buyers and suppliers rely upon four different kinds of product standards to facilitate transactions: DeFacto, Regulatory, Proprietary, and Voluntary Consensus.

DeFacto standards are those that are proprietary in nature, but for one or more reasons have gained dominant market position. An example of this kind of standard is Microsoft Windows, a proprietary, patent-protected operating system standard for personal computers that nonetheless forms the primary specification criteria for most personal computer purchases today.

Regulatory standards represent product rules written and adopted by government agencies, which then migrate to broader commercial applications through a variety of means. These rules are typically developed to address a specific perceived public health or safety issue. The South Coast Air Quality Management District’s Rule 1113, specifying allowable VOC limits for architectural coatings, is an example of this type of standard. While initially adopted to help reduce smog in the Los Angeles Basin, it has garnered increased use and visibility as one of the low-emitting product criteria in the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system.

Proprietary standards represent that body of product criteria developed outside the formal voluntary consensus process by one or more organizations and/or companies working together to solve perceived market needs. In addition to following development processes (which do not necessarily conform to international rules of due process), these standards typically stipulate a single organization that is responsible for determining product conformance with the standard, significantly limiting the market opportunity for global reach and competitiveness. Examples of proprietary product standards common in the green building environment include ENERGY STAR®, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), GreenSeal, Sustainable Forestry initiative (SFI), Cradle2Cradle, and Environmental Choice.

Voluntary consensus standards, which are viewed as the “gold” standard from the international commerce perspective, are those standards that are developed via a formal process characterized by openness and due process. In the United States, the rules describing the process by which a voluntary consensus standard must be developed, as well as the general principles of what can and cannot be included in these types of standards, are detailed in the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) “Essential Requirements: Due process requirements for American National Standards.” These requirements apply to activities related to the development of consensus for approval, revision, reaffirmation, and withdrawal of American National Standards (ANS).

At the core of the 20-plus-page “Essential Requirements” is the role of due process in the standards development process. As described, due process means that any person (organization, company, government agency, individual, etc.) with a direct and material interest has a right to participate by: a) expressing a position and its basis, b) having that position considered, and c) having the right to appeal. Due process allows for equity and fair play. The following constitute the minimum acceptable due process requirements for the development of consensus: Openness, Lack of dominance, Balance, Notification of standards development and coordination, Consideration of views and objections, Consensus vote; Appeals, Written procedures, and Limitations on the use of commercial terms and conditions.

Why Voluntary Consensus Standards
Given all the rules and procedures required to develop voluntary consensus standards, one might ask, why bother? Well, first and foremost, with the adoption of the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act (NTTAA) (P.L. 104-113), federal agencies, as well as state and local governments, have been directed to adopt private-sector voluntary consensus standards wherever possible in lieu of creating proprietary, non-consensus standards. The use of these voluntary consensus standards, whenever practicable and appropriate, is intended to achieve the following goals:

  • Eliminate the cost to the government of developing its own standards and decrease the cost of goods procured and the burden of complying with agency regulation.
  • Provide incentives and opportunities to establish standards that serve national needs.
  • Encourage long-term growth for U.S. enterprises and promote efficiency and economic competition through harmonization of standards.
  • Further the policy of reliance upon the private sector to supply government needs for goods and services.

Considering the considerable quantity of products purchased by our assorted governmental agencies, one can quickly see the market value in having voluntary consensus standards available that address the purchasers’ requirements.

A second driver for voluntary consensus standards is that global trade is demanding them. World trade recognizes the importance of product standards, but a plethora of proprietary standards – often with mutually exclusive criteria – can wreak havoc with manufacturers’ abilities to deliver high-performing, innovative, and cost-effective goods to the marketplace. As noted in its 2005 Global Citizenship Report, HP’s products are expected to demonstrate conformance with ENERGY STAR in the United States, Blue Angel in Germany, Environmental Choice in Canada, IT Eco Declaration in the Nordic Countries, Green Mark in Taiwan, TCO in Sweden, and PC Green Label in Japan, to name just some of the environmental performance standards. It is easy to understand why HP advocates and supports harmonized, international, voluntary, and consensus-based standards.

Another global trade driver for voluntary consensus standards is governmental conformance with the World Trade Organization Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (WTO/TBT). The agreement tries to ensure that regulations, standards, testing, and certification procedures do not create unnecessary trading obstacles for producers and exporters, and, in particular, cannot be used as an excuse for protectionism. Importantly, the TBT rules indicate that purchasing criteria developed in accordance with internationally accepted principles of standardization (transparency, openness, consensus, etc.) are not considered technical barriers to trade.

A third key reason for embracing the voluntary consensus process, in spite of all its challenges, is the awe-inspiring ability to drive amazing market transformation. One does not need to look beyond the phenomenal success of the Web, made possible by diligent efforts of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) members to demonstrate the potential power of open, consensus-based standards.

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