TABLE 1 Definitions

Term

Definition

Standard

Specifications and/or criteria for the manufacture, use, and/or attributes of a product, process, or service.

Certification

The process, often performed by a third party, of verifying that a product, process or service adheres to a given set of standards and/or criteria.

Labeling

The method of providing information on the attributes, often unobservable, for a product, process or service.

THEORY

The first step in building the theory behind standards, certification, and labeling is to understand that these three terms, while often used (nearly) interchangeably, are actually different aspects of a process that is meant to increase the amount of information available to the consumer/user of a given product or service. Table 1 gives a definition of each of these three terms.

These three tools are interdependent. For example, certification requires some set of criteria (standards) against which a process, product, or service is being judged. And labels refer, at the very least, to some implied (though not necessarily explicit) criteria. Therefore, efforts to understand how this kind of information provision works as a policy tool have to take each of these aspects separately, while still understanding how they interact with each other.

Implicit in the entire process of standardization, certification, and labeling is a set of underlying goals. Standards are not set arbitrarily—they are used to address a specific problem. A basic example is the electric wall socket. All electric wall sockets in the United States have the same shape, and deliver the same 120V AC current. This is a standard—but the underlying goal is to have a system in place so that any electric device can be plugged into, and run off, any electric wall socket in the country.1 This also illustrates another important point—there is usually more than one standard that will solve the same problem. In Europe, wall sockets have a different configuration and deliver 240V of AC current. But for each region, the underlying problem was solved through the creation of a set of criteria for the delivery of electric current for common use. A highly simplified process diagram is shown in Figure 1, where the identification of a problem

1

For this example, there is also an associated certification and labeling program. Most electrically powered devices sold in the United States are inspected, certified, and labeled as being approved by the Underwriters Laboratories (UL), an independent company that works with industry to develop appropriate product safety standards. These products are certified and labeled, so that consumers know that the devices can be used safely.



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