What are Standards?

Everyday business life involves managing several materials, services, processes, and persons under certain guidelines that typically intend to meet quality assurance objectives and facilitate transactions. Such guidelines are called standards. These consist of a set of agreed-upon rules, documents or characteristics for developing products, services, and processes involved in business activity. Standards, along with technical regulations and conformity assessment procedures, are framed as technical measures to trade, according to the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (see guide on technical barriers to trade). Unlike technical regulations, standards are not mandatory and only require businesses to comply with them voluntarily. However, voluntary standards can become the de facto norm and governments may later use them as the basis for mandatory regulations. The International Standards Organization (ISO) offers a variety of resources for small businesses to learn more about standards, which will be further discussed in this guide.

What are some types of standards?

Standards can vary according to the business activity they target or the territorial jurisdiction where they are applied. By business activity, standards set guidelines for businesses to manage their functions and operations in areas such as human resources, information and technology, and finance. Identifying the territorial scope of standards depends on whether the standard-developing organization operates nationally, regionally, or globally. According to the International Standards Organization (ISO), some of the most popular international standards adopted by businesses relate to standards on quality management, information security management, and occupational health and safety. Standards can also be more diverse and specific to products, services, or sectors. Examples of these sets of standards include the voluntary sustainability standards (see guide on voluntary sustainability standards) and standards for cross-border paperless trade (see guide on standards for cross-border paperless trade). The International Trade Centre’s (ITC) SME Competitiveness Outlook 2016 provides more information on the various types of standards and standard-developing organizations that can be useful for you to know.

How can standards support my business to trade?

Standards play an important role in international trade because they help ensure production efficiency, product quality, and customer confidence in cross-border business transactions. As trade expands the supply chains involved in receiving or delivering inputs, products or services beyond national borders, supply chain actors such as upstream suppliers, distributors and customers may rely on certain standards to seize the feasibility of international business plans. Getting certified for standards relevant to your business areas can help you to get market access and compete in sectors where your products or services may have potential demand (see guides on export potential for products and export potential for services). While adopting standards may have a range of benefits for your businesses, it may represent significant costs. To get started in assessing the costs and benefits of getting certified, you can take the International Trade Centre’s (ITC) course on the benefits and costs of certification for voluntary sustainability standards (VSS), which are equally relevant for all standards. For more insights on business experiences in adopting standards, you can visit the ISO’s The Small-Business Advantage.

Where can I find further resources on standards?

  • ISO and Small & Medium Enterprises: The International Standards Organization (ISO) offers a number of handbooks, manuals and guides for small businesses to consider and prepare for the process of adopting standards in a variety of business subjects. Visit this ISO website.
  • ITC’s Export Quality Management Guide for small businesses: The International Trade Centre (ITC) provides a holistic guide on technical aspects related to standards that small businesses can use for learning more about the role of standards in international trade. Visit this ITC website.
  • ITC’s Standards Map: ITC offers an analytical toolkit that enables businesses to review and compare 320+ standards by product, sector, area or focus. This tool focuses on voluntary sustainability standards (see guide on voluntary sustainability standards), codes of conduct, audit protocols, reporting frameworks and company programs on sustainability. Visit the Standards Map.
  • ITC’s e-learning on standards map: ITC’s Standards Map provides a series of online lecturers on topics that introduce businesses with the concepts and scope of voluntary sustainability standards and insights on cost-benefit analysis of certification. Visit the e-learning.
  • A Guide to the IFRS for SMEs: The International Accounting Standards Board offers a guide on the International Financial Reporting Standard (IFRS) for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This is a standard for businesses seeking to gain more access to capital by adopting high quality financial reporting principles. Visit this IFRS website.