What is a voluntary standard?

Market players drive the creation of voluntary standards. A voluntary standard is a frame of reference providing guidelines, technical or qualitative specifications for products, services or best practices to serve the general interest. It is the fruit of consensual co-production between the professionals and users involved in its development. Any organization may or may not use and refer to it; that is why the standard is said to be voluntary.

What are voluntary standards for?

Voluntary standards are based on obtaining consensus among all players and in this sense they ensure that all parties are in agreement – economic players and consumers, professionals and users – to clarify and harmonize practices and define the level of quality, safety, compatibility and reduced environmental impact of products, services and practices. They therefore facilitate national and international trade and help create a better economic structure, making everyday life easier for everyone.

What can be standardized?

The size of an A4 sheet of paper, drinking water, a construction site helmet, the customer service department of a large company, online consumer reviews, etc. In our everyday lives just about everything can be the subject of a voluntary standard. Perfection does not exist, but by optimizing the characterization, quality and performance of a product or service, a process, a method of measurement and testing, an organizational system, the dissemination of a common language … we get close to it. Everything that is standardized is done so with a requirement for continuous improvement and progress for the benefit of everyone.

What is the difference between standardization and regulatory requirements?

Regulatory requirements are the responsibility of public authorities. They are the expression of a law, regulation or ruling and their application is mandatory. In contrast, standards are voluntary in character. Compliance with standards is not an obligation. They reflect an organization’s commitment to meet a recognized and approved level of quality and safety. Voluntary standards can support regulatory requirements by being cited as reference documents. Only 1% of standards is mandatory.

Do voluntary standards promote innovation?

Like patents, voluntary standards are a form of codified knowledge. Upstream, they provide benchmark methods and results for a solid foundation and time saving in the innovation process. Downstream, they facilitate the dissemination of breakthrough ideas and cutting-edge technologies.
In other words, by providing ground rules to the market, they create optimal conditions for sharing and developing new products and services. In this sense they act as an innovation accelerator, encouraging the application of innovations in all economic spheres.
Involvement in voluntary standardization also helps participants stay informed, anticipate developments in a given sector or subject and promote their ideas.

How do you prove that your product or service complies with voluntary standards?

Compliance with voluntary standards may be the subject of a supplier declaration under its sole responsibility. In so doing the supplier guarantees the quality of its production, services or organizational system. A supplier or customer may also request that this compliance be certified by a third party competent body (laboratory, inspection body, certification body, etc.). This third party is then responsible for verifying that the product, service or system concerned meets the requirements of the standard.

How is standardization organized in france and around the world?

The French standardization system relies on a network of voluntary players from all sectors of activity who are involved in the standardization commissions. Their role is to contribute their expertise and knowledge of each subject in order to develop or revise standards in a relevant manner, and to ensure that standards are well founded and properly constructed. The standardization commissions are led either by sector-based standardization bureaux or by AFNOR which also provides overall coordination. At international level, AFNOR defends French interests as a member of the European (CEN and CENELEC) and international (ISO and IEC) standardization associations. Its influence is both technical and strategic, essential for French enterprises since 90% of standards applied in France are of international origin.

How is a voluntary standard developed?

Any economic player can propose a draft standard, which is another aspect of its voluntary nature. This proposal is then submitted to an existing or future standardization commission bringing together all parties interested in the subject. Depending on needs, the project is addressed at national, European or global level.

Once finalized and validated by the commission, the project moves into a second validation phase. This is a public consultation (open to all) known as the public enquiry. The commission then works on enriching the text of the standard based on comments collected in the enquiry; it then becomes definitive and is submitted for approval by the Institute for Standardization. The whole process takes between one and three years. Voluntary standards are then reviewed periodically (at least every five years).

Which standards are mandatory?

Standards are intended to meet market needs and are voluntary in principle. However, a number of them can contribute to enforcement of technical regulatory requirements and may even become mandatory. This is the case for 1% of standards, equivalent to 336 texts, at the end of April 2018.

Where appropriate, public authorities refer to mandatory standards in three ways:

  • In a regulatory text published in the Official Journal and as the sole means of meeting the requirements of the text.
  • By means of a regulatory text stating that compliance with all or part of a standard equates to a presumption of conformity with the regulatory requirements. In this case, there are other means of meeting regulatory requirements which the enterprise may or may not choose to use.
  • By means of technical regulatory requirements referring to standards in an indicative manner.

In accordance with Article 17 of decree 2009-697, mandatory standards are viewable free of charge on our website.

Are voluntary standards free?

Voluntary standards are subject to payment and copyright protected. This is because they are documents with high added value developed by an impartial body with the help of all interested parties, according to a recognized and controlled iterative process, and updated as needed. Purchasing a voluntary standard is always worthwhile for an enterprise or organization.

If an organization considers that a price of 80 euros for example is too high for purchase of a voluntary standard, it should be aware that it would be much more costly to consult the interested parties directly on its technical specifications, to create consensus and keep the document updated.

However, as provided by the decree of 16 June 2009 (art. 17), updated on 10 November 2021, mandatory standards are viewable free of charge on our website and on the Legifrance website. Standards made mandatory are done so by decision of the Minister for Industry and/or other interested ministers. Despite this specific status, funding of the work from which they are derived is identical to any other voluntary standard.

Questions about whether voluntary standards should be subject to payment also arise from frequently confusing them with mandatory standards which are presumed to be free of charge, being in fact publicly funded. Voluntary standardization has the advantage of placing the cost of voluntary standards exclusively on those who have expressed the need for them.

France is not the only country that sells voluntary standards; all countries that participate in the development of these standards, such as AFNOR in France, also sell them.

What is the link between standard and patent?

A standard is the result of an open process to serve the general interest, orchestrated by a duly authorized body (in France, AFNOR or a delegated standardization bureau) on behalf of a group of interested parties; whereas a patent is the result of a closed process to protect intellectual property, initiated by an individual, institute or enterprise on an individual basis for the purpose of protecting its own interests.

Nevertheless, standards and patents pursue a common objective: to promote the development and dissemination of innovation. Standards are about opening up markets, improving consumer safety and interoperability of products and services; whereas patents are more about protecting competitive advantages and possibly giving the holder a de facto monopoly.

In between the two is the ‘industry standard’, derived from technical specifications defined by a pioneering industrialist for example, or one in a dominant market position, a professional association or an industrial consortium.

Questions about whether voluntary standards should be subject to payment also arise from frequently confusing them with mandatory standards which are presumed to be free of charge, being in fact publicly funded. Voluntary standardization has the advantage of placing the cost of voluntary standards exclusively on those who have expressed the need for them.

France is not the only country that sells voluntary standards; all countries that participate in the development of these standards, such as AFNOR in France, also sell them.

French standard, nf standard, what is it?

90% of voluntary standards are of European or international origin. They can be recognized by their prefix: ISO for standards developed under the aegis of the International Organization for Standardization (in which France is represented by AFNOR), EN for European Committee for Standardization (CEN) standards.

Following the Russian doll principle, an international standard can be adopted in Europe and, in turn, adopted as part of a national collection. Its wording is then supplemented with the corresponding prefixes in ascending order of geographical scopes: NF ISO, NF EN ISO.

When a standard has only the prefix NF, this means that it is only applicable and applied in France and is for sale in the AFNOR collection. However, it may potentially acquire other prefixes if AFNOR proposes its use internationally to make it a benchmark text that crosses national borders in the interest of the markets. This is the case for many voluntary standards, for example those relating to e-cigarettes.

How can you get involved in standardization?

Anyone can take part in developing a standard. Simply make a request to AFNOR Standardization or to the sector-based standardization bureau, if it exists. If consideration of your product or service is already underway, you can immediately join the existing commission and contribute to the work in progress.

If your subject area is new, AFNOR Standardization will bring together all interested parties to verify that sufficient interest has been expressed, and if so a new commission will be formed. The activity of the commissions is managed in the form of projects requiring technical input by the participants and their financial contribution to cover the costs of organization and logistics.

An economic player who joins a standardization commission participates directly in the production of standards that will shape the market of the future.

how do voluntary standards benefit the french economy?

Voluntary standards help lift the French economy. They serve as benchmark tools to clarify and harmonize practices and define the level of quality, safety, compatibility and reduced environmental impact of products, services and practices. In this sense, they contribute to laying the foundations of tomorrow’s economy and society.

A BIPE study for AFNOR shows that voluntary standards in France represent a production value of 15 billion euros. First conducted in 2016, the study was replicated in 2017 and 2019 in the fields of mechanical engineering and electrotechnologies, with the same positive conclusions. They also encourage adoption and dissemination of approved and recognized best practices, enabling the various economic players to evolve in a context of confidence and performance. In addition, they provide a common language, thereby facilitating both national and international exchange.

Lastly, voluntary standards play a unique and crucial role in supporting progress and innovation and advancing France’s prestige around the world.

Getting involved in standardization: waste of time or growth accelerator?

A 2016 study by BIPE for AFNOR revealed that for a company, participating in standardization and using standards generates a concrete and visible balance sheet benefit. On cross-referencing participation in standardization commissions with economic data, it is noted that companies involved in producing standards achieve a 20% higher growth rate in turnover than the average observed in their sector. Similarly, the proportion of their activity in the export market is higher: the export rate of these involved companies is three points higher than the average rate observed in their sector. In other words, a standard can act as a passport to higher sales across national borders.

Does standardization activity in france have an international impact??

When we take actions involving voluntary standardization in France, this has positive repercussions at international level. It can impact on development of the French economy and French companies directly, or be for the benefit of all indirectly. These positive repercussions are due to two factors: firstly, the effects of AFNOR’s influence in international bodies (CEN, CENELEC and ISO, IEC) and secondly, the quality of the French industrial fabric.

To meet the need for international economic exchanges, AFNOR developed one of the first standardization networks. This gives France a leading role in the governance of international organizations. France is a permanent member of the CEN and CENELEC councils (European level) and the ISO and IEC councils (international level). These bodies are the main deliberative bodies of these structures. This strong presence enables AFNOR and its stakeholders to influence the standardization work and strategies of these bodies and to effectively defend French interests. According to the international standardization survey, France ranks 2nd on the European podium (CEN/CENELEC) and 3rd at international level (ISO/IEC).

Chairing or steering a European or international committee is a major asset for France. These responsibilities highlight common practices validated in France, facilitate relations with international partners and make it possible to anticipate proposals from other countries and strengthen the competitiveness of enterprises associated with the sector concerned. France is also fortunate to have a high-performing industrial fabric.

This advantage allows AFNOR to showcase the stances of France’s economic players and position them as a benchmark for the development of a given sector at international level. France demonstrates its commitment to an even greater extent in sectors where it has significant responsibilities. This is particularly the case in the management and services, transport and logistics, and water and energy sectors.