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Trade Spotlight: There’s Nothing Standard About Standards

October 25, 2021

Written by ITA’s Office of Standards & Intellectual Property

This post contains external links. Please review our external linking policy

Image of four different orange cords used to connect electronics.

You may not realize it, but standards are a part of your everyday life. Like atoms and molecules, standards are often invisible to the naked eye but play a fundamental role in nearly everything we do. From wall outlets in homes to fuel nozzles on cars and pipe fittings for USB ports, standards help keep the world connected. In recognition of World Standards Week, ITA’s Office of Standards & Intellectual Property (OSIP) offers a peek behind the curtain into the world of standards and why they matter for global trade.

What are Standards and how are they connected to trade?

At its simplest, a standard is a document that lays out a common understanding of the characteristics for a particular product, process, or service. Standards are a way for different groups – designers, suppliers, regulators, and consumers, among others – to have confidence that they’re all talking about the same thing. Many standards define terminology while others outline testing and measurement techniques. For technologies like WiFi or 5G, tech companies may standardize interfaces so products from various companies can all work together and anywhere in the world.

Standards are voluntary, with companies choosing to adopt them when it is valuable. For example, while no law requires that a laptop be able to access WiFi, most manufacturers build to that standard to meet the expectations of their customers. In some cases, governments may adopt a standard into their technical regulations, effectively making it mandatory. ITA has found that 92% of U.S. exports are affected by standards-related technical regulations, making them the most common non-tariff trade barrier reported by companies.

Don’t Forget Your Adapter

Standards may differ from country to country. If you’ve ever needed to purchase an adapter for your devices when traveling, you’ve experienced this difference firsthand. To minimize global trade fragmentation, the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade commits signatories to use relevant international standards whenever possible. ITA’s Office of Standards & Intellectual Property works with countries and industry consortia around the world to promote the adoption of international standards in markets to ensure that U.S. exporters don’t face standards-related barriers to trade.

Celebrating World Standards Week

While many people rarely see standards development in action, the United States boasts a vibrant standards development community, which we celebrate every October (October 14 marks World Standards Day). Unlike many countries, the U.S. private sector leads standards development in the United States through a “bottom-up” system coordinated by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), a private non-profit organization. ANSI and the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) co-chair an annual event known as “World Standards Week,” bringing together standards stakeholders to mark the occasion. This year’s event will to be held virtually on October 25-28, with a second in-person celebration in May 2022. This year will focus on the role of standards in fulfilling the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are closely aligned with the Biden Administrations strategic goals.

We hope you too join us in celebrating standards! Contact OSIP for more information about standards and learn more about World Standards celebrations and events happening this week here.

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