Advancing American Competitiveness through Conformity Assessment: Legal Issues and Best Practices kicked off ANSI's annual series of meetings, World Standards Week, on September 21, 2010, in Arlington, Virginia. An expansion of ANSI's annual Legal Issues Forum, typically an issue-focused half-day event, the discussion of legal issues was a key component of the day's discussions, especially with respect to the integration of conformity assessment solutions into regulations and mandates.
"We may be the American National Standards Institute, but conformity assessment is central to ANSI's work and to our overall mission," explained Joe Bhatia, ANSI president and CEO in his opening remarks. "As you know, standards and conformity assessment are two sides of the same coin. From consumers and buyers to sellers and regulators, Americans rely on conformity assessment to enhance our confidence in goods, services, and personnel, while avoiding barriers to trade."
In her keynote address, Gerri Fiala, deputy assistant secretary of the Employment and Training Administration (ETA) of the U.S. Department of Labor, expressed how the Department of Labor and ANSI share a common goal of strengthening America's workforce, a national priority set out by the Obama Administration. She outlined the ETA's efforts to improve workforce development, including career pathway models that link education to employment and the myskillsmyfuture.org website, an innovative program that helps workers understand how their skills and education are transferrable to other careers.
Just a few days after the ANSI conference, President Barack Obama held a White House summit calling for community colleges to produce an additional 5 million graduates by 2020. Calling them the "unsung heroes of America's education system," Obama has signed legislation that will give community colleges an additional $2 billion in funding over the next four years, helping these institutions to play an important part in what Ms. Fiala called the "continued development of human capital" in her remarks at the ANSI conference.
Building on Secretary Fiala's call for continued education for all Americans, the first panel of the day addressed the credentialing of the American workforce. Speakers detailed the importance of quality credentials and stressed that they are a win-win situation: employees can find work in stable and competitive positions, and employers can find skilled workers to perform critical tasks. For example, Dale Cyr, CEO of the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography, gave an overview of sonography as a rapidly expanding field that needs better-trained workers with the appropriate credentials to operate the technical medical equipment correctly. With effective third-party accreditation measures in place, workers and employers can ensure that sonography and other certification programs are actually giving workers the skills that they'll need on the job.
A second panel brought together experts on the conformity assessment mechanisms in place to assure the security of the global supply chain for food and consumer products. While the food safety industry has been slow to understand and embrace the value of third-party accreditation, Jill Hollingsworth, group vice president for food safety programs at the Food Marketing Institute, said that customers, grocers, and restaurants are increasingly demanding certified produce, meat, and other foods. Though many certifications may be voluntary, suppliers will get on board if certification helps them keep their customers and build their business. With the proposed food safety legislation unlikely to move until after the November Congressional elections, reliance on private sector-led conformance solutions is critical to assure a secure food safety supply chain.
The third panel addressed the status of climate change legislation and regulation, voluntary markets, and the importance of oversight and conformity assessment in climate related claims. Speakers discussed how seemingly every industry is now affected by these issues, challenged to increase efficiency and green supply chains, and reduce GHG emissions. Consumers are also increasingly factoring in environmental concerns in purchasing decisions. The rapidly growing eco-labeling market is a product of this focus and the variety of certification marks, labels, and terms creates confusion. Businesses interested in reducing their environmental impact often don't know where to start, while consumers are confused by the overabundance of these labels. Transparency, accountability, and standardization are essential in these types of claims. Accredited third party certification is critical in establishing credible and meaningful marks in the field.
One of the panelists, Craig Coulter, business manager of sustainability services for UL Environment, offered several steps to improve the landscape for meaningful climate change mitigation. He stressed the importance of communication across sectors, examining existing and needed standards and how they might work together, and looking for historical parallels to guide further action. In general, attendees agreed that it can be difficult to build this type of cooperation, but it is key to the most effective solutions, and ANSI is well-positioned to continue facilitating this effort in the future.
In a lively open discussion period, attendees described conformity assessment as a tool to stimulate growth, manufacturing, and competitiveness. But several participants cautioned that compliance activities should not dictate needs; rather, they should be an anticipation of or a response to those needs. And as industry calls for government agencies to rely on private sector-led standards and conformance solutions, there needs to be greater information sharing and collaboration in order to facilitate this partnership. Government agencies looking to set mandates may not rely on a private-sector conformity assessment scheme if they don't know it exists, and industry may not expend the resources to travel to Washington and meet with government officials if they don't know about proposed regulations that may affect their business.
Proceedings and presentations from the event are available here. To view photos from the conference, click here. For more information on this and the other events of World Standards Week, visit www.ansi.org/wsweek.