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A Brief History of ISO

Standards are important in international trade because incongruent standards can be barriers to trade, giving some organizations advantages in certain areas of the world. Standards provide clear identifiable references that are recognized internationally and encourage fair competition in free-market economies. Standards facilitate trade through enhanced product quality and reliability, greater inter-operability and compatibility, greater ease of maintenance and reduced costs. ISO covers a wide variety of standards with the exception of electrical and electronic engineering standards covered by the International Electro-technical Commission (IEC), telecommunication standards covered by the International Telegraph Union (ITU) and Information Technology covered by JTC 1 (a joint committee between ISO and IEC).

The organization which today is known as ISO began in 1926 as the International Federation of the National Standardizing Associations (ISA). This organization focused heavily on mechanical engineering. It was disbanded in 1942 during the second World War but was re-organized under the current name, ISO, in 1946.

Even the name of the organization is standardized. The name, "ISO" is not an acronym but was derived from the Greek word "isos" meaning "equal". (The relation to standards is that if two objects meet the same standard, they should be equal.) This name eliminates any confusion that could result from the translation of "International Organization For Standardization" into different languages which would lead to different acronyms.

ISO is a voluntary organization whose members are recognized standard authorities, each one representing one country. The bulk of the work of ISO is done by the 2700 technical committees, subcommittees and working groups. Each committee and subcommittee is headed by a Secretariat from one of the member organizations. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) is the United States representative to ISO. The ANSI ASC Z-1/ASQ Standards Group coordinates the United States representation in the ISO Technical Committees 176 and 207 which are concerned with the ISO 9000 and ISO 14000 standards respectively.

The ISO Standardization Process

Each member body who has an interest in the work of a committee is entitled to be a member of that committee. Standards are reached by consensus with each member organization representing the interests of the vendors, manufacturers, consumers, professionals, and government of it's country.

Each standard goes through a six stage process before being published as an ISO standard. The first stage is the proposal stage in which a need for a standard is determined and members are identified who are willing to work on it. The standards then enters the preparatory stage where a working draft of the standard is developed. When the working draft is completed, it enters the committee stage and is sent out for comments until a consensus is reached. The output of this stage is the Draft International Standard (DIS). The DIS then enters the enquiry stage where it is circulated among all member bodies and then voted upon. If a DIS does not receive 75% of the vote, it returns to lower stages and work on it continues. If it passes the enquiry stage , it becomes a Final Draft International Standard and enters the approval stage. During this stage it will again circulate through all member bodies for a final vote and again it must pass this stage with 75% of the vote. If the standard passes this stage, it enters the publication stage and is sent to the ISO Central Secretariat for publication.

Because certain technologies are changing so rapidly, ISO has instituted a Fast Track procedure that allows a standard which has been proven in the market to enter the approval process at the enquiry stage.


In London, in 1946, 65 delegates from 25 countries meet to discuss the future of International Standardization. In 1947, ISO officially comes into existence with 67 technical committees (groups of experts focusing on a specific subject).

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ISO (International Organization for Standardization) is the world's largest developer of voluntary International Standards. We were founded in 1947, and since then have published more than 19 500 International Standards covering almost all aspects of technology and business. Today we have members from 161 countries and about 150 people work full time for our Central Secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland.

ISO's first offices

In 1949, ISO moves into offices in a small, private house in Geneva. In the early 1950s the Central Secretariat has 5 members of staff.

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Benefits of International Standards...

International Standards bring technological, economic and societal benefits. They help to harmonize technical specifications of products and services making industry more efficient and breaking down barriers to international trade. Conformity to International Standards helps reassure consumers that products are safe, efficient and good for the environment.

Facts and figures about the benefits of standards

ISO has developed a comprehensive set of case studies and materials describing the economic and social benefits of standards. We also have an extensive collection of case studies and resources from other partner organizations.

For business

International Standards are strategic tools and guidelines to help companies tackle some of the most demanding challenges of modern business. They ensure that business operations are as efficient as possible, increase productivity and help companies access new markets.

Benefits include:

  • Cost savings - International Standards help optimize operations and therefore improve the bottom line
  • Enhanced customer satisfaction - International Standards help improve quality, enhance customer satisfaction and increase sales
  • Access to new markets - International Standards help prevent trade barriers and open up global markets
  • Increased market share - International Standards help increase productivity and competitive advantage
  • Environmental benefits - International Standards help reduce negative impacts on the environment

Businesses also benefit from taking part in the standard development process. Read more about the benefits of getting involved in standards development.

For Society

ISO has over 19 500 standards touching almost all aspects of daily life.

When products and services conform to International Standards consumers can have confidence that they are safe, reliable and of good quality. For example, ISO's standards on road safety, toy safety and secure medical packaging are just a selection of those that help make the world a safer place.

To make sure that the benefits of ISO International Standards are as broad as possible, ISO supports the involvement of consumers in standard development work with its Committee on consumer policy (COPOLCO).

International Standards on air, water and soil quality, on emissions of gases and radiation and environmental aspects of products contribute to efforts to preserve the environment and the health of citizens.

For government

ISO standards draw on international expertise and experience and are therefore a vital resource for governments when developing regulations.

National governments can make ISO standards a regulatory requirement (remember ISO standards themselves are voluntary). This has a number of benefits:

  • Expert opinion - ISO standards are developed by experts. By integrating an ISO standard into national regulation, governments can benefit from the opinion of experts without having to call on their services directly.
  • Opening up world trade - ISO standards are international and adopted by many governments. By integrating ISO standards into national regulation, governments help to ensure that requirements for imports and exports are the same the world over, therefore facilitating the movement of goods, services and technologies from country to country.