Thursday, April 7, 2022

Will this be the end of global certification?

Map of Ukraine showing the military situation as of 6 April 2022
Military situation as of 6 April 2022
Things happen fast in wartime.

On 24 February 2022 — that's six weeks ago today — Russia invaded Ukraine in a major escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War, which has been going on at greater or lesser intensity since 2014. More than forty nations reacted to this invasion by imposing a wide range of economic sanctions against Russia. The nations imposing these sanctions include the European Union and other nations in Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan — which is to say that this list of nations includes many of the largest economies of the world. The hope was that these sanctions would hurt the Russian economy and encourage a quick end to the war.

The ISO, the IAF, and Grand Fenwick

What does any of this have to do with Quality? It has to do with standardization. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Accreditation Forum (IAF) sit at the center of a network of technical and organizational standards and certifications that enable global trade. The idea is that the ISO should write standards which should be applicable around the world, and then the IAF should accredit certification or registration bodies around the world to validate that organizations or their products meet these standards.

But the ISO and the IAF don't sit in the clouds. They are embodied as real organizations on earth. The ISO is coordinated by a central office in Geneva, Switzerland. The IAF is registered as a Delaware corporation in the United States. They interact with regional or national organizations across the globe, and the legal form that interaction takes is the form of commerce. In other words, when the ISO issues a standard to be used by the national standards board of some country, for example Grand Fenwick, then the Grand Fenwick Standards Board becomes a customer of the ISO. When the ISO accredits the Grand Fenwick Registration Board, giving them the right to certify companies in Grand Fenwick to international standards (like ISO 9001, for example), then the Grand Fenwick Registration Board becomes a customer of the IAF.

Sanctions, decertification, and the Russian response

But wait. The ISO secretariat functions as a Swiss company, and Switzerland has imposed economic sanctions against Russia. The IAF is legally an American company, and the United States has imposed economic sanctions against Russia. In principle this should mean that neither the ISO nor the IAF should have Russian customers any more. But all the Russian certification bodies that have been accredited under this scheme, and all the individual Russian companies holding certificates from those CB's, are ultimately customers of the ISO and the IAF. So in principle all those accreditations and certificates are ... what? Null and void?

You'd think so, although up till now ISO and IAF have avoided saying it. (See for example this statement where the IAF says how sad they are about the "situation" in Ukraine while insisting that they have a policy of "neutrality.") But where they have been silent, other players in the global certification scheme have stepped in. For example, three weeks ago the ANSI National Accreditation Board (ANAB) issued a statement as follows:

As of 18 March 2022, ANAB required our accredited CABs to immediately halt all ANAB-accreditation activity in the Russian Federation and Belarus and to immediately remove all references to ANAB and ANAB-accreditation symbols associated with Russian or Belarusian entities, sites, products, and systems. ANAB-accredited CABS have been notified directly.

Nor is ANAB the only one. A week earlier, the Dutch Accreditation Council Raad voor Accreditatie (RvA) issued a statement denouncing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and followed it by suspending their accreditation of the CB Russian Register

Two days ago, Christopher Paris of Oxebridge International reported that Russia finally responded to these measures by calling them "politically motivated" and insisting that they could get along just fine without ANAB and RvA anyway. So there! And in the short term it's hard to imagine that they could have said anything else.

The optimistic view

What does the future hold? In principle I think there are two possibilities: call them the optimistic view and the pessimistic view.

The optimistic view is easy to describe. If events follow this path, then Russia and Ukraine will make peace very soon; and after some conferences and other measures, the world will fall back into the status quo ante bellum. From the perspective of the global certification scheme we'll be right back where we were a year ago, let's say, and there will be no long term impact. That, as I say, is the optimistic view, and in principle I guess it should be possible. I do not have the expertise to estimate its likelihood.

The pessimistic view

The pessimistic view takes a little longer to describe, and it can start in either of two ways. 

War and distrust

One possibility is that the war will last longer than we expect, or longer than we hope. Another is that after the war is over, the Russians will be left with a deep and abiding distrust of the nations who sanctioned them. Either way, the likelihood of restoring the status quo ante bellum with respect to global certification vanishes almost to nothing. 

If the war continues for a long time, Russian companies cannot be expected to function for years without some kind of certification scheme. Since presumably they will not have access to Western accreditation and certification bodies during all that time, they will establish and use domestic ones.

If the war ends with the Russians feeling deep distrust for the West, the same thing will happen. Doubtless the Western AB's and CB's will make overtures to Russian companies as soon as peace is declared, reminding them of the benefits of global certification and asking them to come back as customers once more. But if we assume the level of distrust that I imagine here, then we must also guess that the Russian response will be, "Why should we be your customers again? So that you can decertify us a second time, the next time you get mad at us? Why should we let ourselves be dependent on you again? What's in it for us?" And so, again, we should assume that Russian companies will work with Russian AB's and CB's, not Western ones.

Separate schemes

On the surface, this doesn't sound very different from what we have today. For simple reasons of convenience, most Russian companies are already certified by Russian CB's, of course. What is crucial, though, is that in the scenario I describe here, the Russian AB's and CB's would belong to their own accreditation scheme and not the "global" one.

In other words: up until the invasion six weeks ago, every international standard used in Russia could be traced back to the ISO; and every certification could be traced back — sometimes through many steps — to the IAF. Under the pessimistic scenario I describe here, that would stop. For whatever reason — either because of the exigencies of war, or because of an abiding distrust of the West (or both, of course) — the actors in the Russian economy would, in this view, make it a point of principle never again to depend on "foreign" institutions like the ISO and the IAF. So the apex of the Russian certification pyramids would be Russian entities, not Swiss or American ones. Instead of the ISO, standards would be issued by the Russian Federal Agency on Technical Regulating and Metrology, the entity now responsible for issuing the GOST-R standards. Instead of the IAF, accreditations would be traceable back to Rosakkreditatsiya, the Russian Federal Service for Accreditation. 

Instead of one global standardization scheme, we would have two.    

Divergent standards

It doesn't stop there. Today, the GOST-R standards are strictly aligned with their ISO counterparts. They are translated into the Russian language, but there is scrupulous attention paid to keeping the standards uniform worldwide.

But once the standards are fully owned by a Russian authority, once they are understood to be Russian standards and not Russian translations of international standards, ... where is the incentive to keep them aligned in the future? Everyone who has ever managed documents knows that unless all updates are centralized, different copies of documents that start out the same inevitably drift apart over time. And we don't have to assume any malicious intention on the part of any of the actors involved. One year the ISO will change a standard, and the GOST-R agency won't be able to get a copy of the changes. Another year, they'll review the changes and decide that in good conscience they disagree. Both times the ISO standard will change while the "corresponding" GOST-R standard won't. Then there will be a year in which the Russian agency decides they have to make some other kind of change to address an urgent issue facing local companies; but they may feel themselves under no obligation even to report that change to ISO, and in any event ISO might not take it up. 

One way or another, after a few years the existence of two parallel standardization schemes will result in the existence of two parallel and incompatible sets of standards. 

A world divided

What are the consequences of having two incompatible sets of standards in the world? Obviously it will make it harder — and, incrementally, ever harder still — to do business across the divide. Companies that use one set of standards will find it hard to work with companies that use the other set. At a product level, spare parts might not fit; and at an organizational or process level, expectations will not be uniform.

But won't this mostly affect Russian companies? If Russia pushes to have its own, independent standardization and certification scheme in the wake of the current war, won't that just make it harder for Russian companies to do business with the rest of the world? Won't it just isolate Russian companies inside their own internal market? Does anybody outside of Russia need to care?

There is a short-term answer, and a long-term answer.

In the short term — the very short term — yes, measures like this would isolate Russian companies, by making it harder for them to trade in world markets. But the story doesn't stop there.

Plenty of countries are still interested in doing business with Russia. And even if a country (like China, for example) chooses to maintain trade relations at a national level with both Russia and the West, each individual company inside China will have to decide for themselves which set of standards to use. If a company does business predominantly with the West, it will probably continue to align itself with the ISO product and management system standards. But if a company does business predominantly with Russia, we should expect it to align itself with the GOST-R standards instead.

And in the very long run, this division cannot help but to make the Western economies weaker, because we will no longer be able to do business worldwide. Any time you restrict a market, you weaken the players who are confined to that market.

Maybe it sounds funny that I use words like "confined" to describe the West, since back at the beginning of this post I pointed out that the nations which have sanctioned Russia represent some of the largest economies in the world. But they do not represent all the large economies in the world, nor the fastest-growing ones.

  • Of the 10 countries with the largest GDP, only 2 did not sanction Russia. (China, India)
  • Of the 20 countries with the largest GDP, 8 did not sanction Russia. (China, India, Russia itself, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia)
  • Of the 50 countries with the largest GDP, at least 25 — that's half — did not sanction Russia. That list of 25 includes some of the fastest-growing economies in the world: China and India, but also Vietnam, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and others. 
We in the West will not be "confined" or "isolated" by our standardization scheme today, nor tomorrow. But there is a possibility that things won't look so rosy in another twenty years, to say nothing of longer terms than that. As above, I do not have the expertise to estimate the likelihood of this scenario.


Don't misunderstand me. I'm not criticizing the sanctions. I think the invasion of Ukraine is appalling, and I don't for a minute expect the nations of the world to sit around doing nothing while it goes on.

My only point is that every time we act, there are unforeseen consequences that propagate out like ripples on a pond. Some of those consequences may affect the worldwide standardization and certification schemes that we have come to take for granted. At the very least, maybe we can avoid being taken by surprise. 

Photo by Koen Emmers on Unsplash




  1. Hello, I am the person who made a comment on the ecosophia blog, about the general issue of the global system of standards and certification. I will quote the full comment below, but just want to add that a comment on a different topic, which was made by JMG appears to summarise all of my own comments most succinctly.

    I am happy to further discuss this with anyone who wishes.

    JMG's comment: “controlling the narrative is what people do when they can no longer control the facts”

    Keep this comment in mind, while considering what it was that I myself had said. (I will here connect my two comments given separately there).

    "I have a great personal interest in the theme of standards and certifications, since I worked for many years as compliance officer for a local fish processing company. That is to say, I was the person in the company that interfaced with the global standards and certification industry. By the time I left my job I was convinced of these things:

    "1) that the relationship between certified standards and actual quality is fictional. Making the product is one domain that is stubbornly incommensurate with the quite separate domain of documenting, and monitoring compliance with product standards. (in almost exactly the same way as the Tao Te Ching states that the names we can give a thing is not THE THING). The standards will never be the products, nor ever be able to satisfactorily describe them.

    "2) Because of 1), it follows that the more standards, the less quality. Standardisation is, in fact, an essential component of the “crapification of things”.

    "3) that the relationship between certified standards and the actual economy is parasitic, in that the more jobs that are created to certify, to inspect, to manage, to comply, to produce documentation (including my own entirely NON-productive job), the more that productive jobs (the making, transporting of goods, and the providing of services) are destroyed.

    "4) that, because of (3), the global standards and certification industry would eventually eat production and the economy, and bring the whole thing to a collapse from too much top-heaviness, and too little bottom sturdiness. Out of which, small, light, and fast non-compliant producers and purveyors who can stay below the radar and out of the limelight, will emerge and begin to create whatever comes next.

    I have to tell you that the prospect of a set back to the global certification industry would not cost me a hair’s worry. It contains enough of its own contradictions and unstable weight to collapse without help. Although, to be sure, those employed in its giant documentation fabricating enterprises will resist being made redundant. And it will make thunderous noise as it falls."

    Best regards, Scotlyn

    1. Hello Scotlyn, and thank you for porting your comments over to this blog. I'm not sure if you will see this reply, but I hope so.

      You make a number of important points. These are things I have heard verbally for years, in side-conversations in the hallway or the lunchroom. But I've never had the chance before now to look at the points laid out crisply in print so that I could think through how to address them.

      I think I want to proceed as follows. I'd like to move the discussion up to the main body of the blog, because as you may have noticed there is not a lot of activity in the Comments. And since your initial statement is not short, I think I want to copy it into a post of its own.

      Then in the subsequent post -- one week later -- I'll start taking up your points to discuss them. Right now my sense is that I'll end up saying, "Well, yes, ... ALMOST." In other words, I think you have identified important issues, and that you have the direction right -- but I think I don't carry them quite as far in that direction as you do. But in any event I won't know for sure until I actually start writing my answers.

      Once again, thank you for raising in print the kinds of questions that I usually hear only in the hallways, but that we in the Quality business really do have to face. Please watch this space over the next couple of weeks for my installment in the conversation. I post every Thursday morning at 8:00 am, Pacific Time. And please feel free to reply to anything that I say.

      Best regards,

    2. That sounds like a fair way to go about it. I will look forward to seeing what your thoughts are.



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