Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Product Certification: Developing Meaningful Programs

Product certifications have exploded in recent years. Products ranging from pine lumber to children’s toys carry some sort of certification, and the organizations issuing certifications are as diverse as the products themselves. What are the practical values of these certifications? What are the pitfalls and limitations? In this article I will explore these issues and propose some recommendations for a product certification program that is meaningful and helpful to consumers and producers alike.

The changing marketplace

The variety and sophistication of products that are available to the general public has exploded in the last half century. Products that would have been considered extravagant or even unimaginable are now commonplace, available day or night at the local big-box retailer, or delivered by a brown UPS truck. Automation of manufacturing methods and the reduction of variability have driven down product costs, and improvements in logistics have moved products to consumers in every corner of the world. The range of manufactured goods has never been broader or more impressive.

With the increase of product variety and sophistication, consumers have more exposure to information about product attributes, performance properties, and potential dangers. The growth of information technology and the increased velocity of the news media has helped educate consumers, establishing an awareness of what products can and should do under conditions of actual use.

Risks that were once unknown or well-concealed are now widely communicated. The communication of risks runs the gamut from scientifically verifiable to the blatantly fabricated. Most consumers don’t possess the technical background to discriminate between the real and the imagined; they only know that a product is reported to have risks and this perception affects purchasing behavior.

Another factor that influences consumer behavior is the litigious nature of society in the United States. If a product doesn't perform as expected or causes injurious results, civil action may be brought to redress losses. Lawsuits may be filed against the designer, manufacturer, distributor, or seller of the product, often with the only consideration being who has the deepest pockets. Information about products risks or dangers, even if inaccurate, can form the basis for legal action. Lawsuit judgments frequently run in the millions of dollars and outcomes of this sort can easily destroy a company.

Consumer behavior aside, some products carry with them inherent and irrefutable risks. Aircraft components and parts must be certified to ensure their reliable performance over defined time frames. Any product failure while in flight can have disastrous consequences, so the product’s performance must be known with a high degree of certainty. Other products have similar safety risks. Notable examples include electrical appliances, children’s toys, pharmaceuticals, and medical devices. Many of the programs associated with known safety risks are administered by government agencies on behalf of the public.

Safety is not the only concern of consumers. Other concerns span the range of human emotions and interests, and they vary greatly from person to person and from region to region. These include the following, to name just a few:

• Environmental impact
• Exploitation of workers and social responsibility
• Exploitation of animals and animal testing
• Energy efficiency
• Use of renewable energy
• Material reutilization and use of recycled components
• Antimicrobial effectiveness
• Recyclability at end of product life
• Ergonomic performance
• Sustainable production processes

In the past, a product simply had to do what it was supposed to do. Expectations of products are much more demanding and complex now. Consumers come to the marketplace armed with a baffling array of concerns and agendas, and producers are left with the challenge of choosing the battles that will lead to reduced risk and long term success.

Product certification with credibility

In response to consumer concerns, producers have embraced the use of product certification systems. These systems provide assurance that a product possesses certain qualities about which consumers and stakeholders feel strongly. There are literally thousands of different product certifications representing almost every imaginable product attribute. The challenge for the consumer is know what makes a credible certification. After all, consumers make important product choices that affect their family’s health and welfare, so they need to be informed about certification claims. One certification seal looks just as official as any other; the magic is knowing what lies behind the seal.

There are five main elements that comprise a credible product certification program:

• Openness
• Objectivity
• Quality management system
• Competent personnel
• Accreditation

Let’s examine each one of these and discuss what they mean in practical terms.


This is exactly what it sounds like: equal and open access to the product certification. A reputable certification scheme must be available to all organizations that produce the applicable products. The certification can’t be contingent on financial inducements, group memberships, or geographical location. The certification should be available to all products that meet the certification criteria, and any organization can apply. This can be contrasted with the following examples:

Join our club. “Sure, you can apply for product certification, but you have to become one of us first. Join our club, pay the dues, support our causes, and we’ll certify your product.” A scheme of this sort has nothing to do with the product attributes and everything to do with building a membership base in an organization.

Pay to play. It is entirely reasonable for a certification body to charge application fees and recover its product testing costs. Nothing in the world is free, and even nonprofit organizations need to develop a revenue stream. What is not reasonable is to require payoffs to obtain certification. Pay-to-play systems like this have no technical merit and exist only to line the pockets of the certifying body.

Only locals need apply. Some product certifications exist as a form of boosterism for a country’s products. Boosting a country’s products is a role of economic development agencies and public relations firms, not product certification. Product certifications that are contingent on geographical location are inherently closed to many products that might otherwise apply.


Objectivity is the cousin of openness. Objectivity means that all products are treated the same way with regard to certification. The same criteria are applied to everybody, and all products are evaluated in the same manner. One of the biggest things that compromises objectivity is money. When the product certification scheme exists solely as a way to make money for the certification body, then you can be sure that the scheme is not objective. Here are some common examples of nonobjective product certification systems:

In-house certification. Companies occasionally develop certification programs for their own products. No other products need apply. How could a scheme like this be considered objective? It isn’t. Nobody certifying its own products can maintain any level of objectivity or impartiality. It’s analogous to judging your own child in a talent contest.

Take my advice. “So, you’d like to obtain certification? Let us help you! We not only grant certification, we offer consulting and advice for companies working in that direction. If you sign up for our consulting program, we feel confident that your products will pass certification.” A product certification like this is nothing more than a back door to selling services. There’s no objectivity, because naturally the certification body is going to favor the products for which it has provided services. A reputable certification body never offers consulting or assistance to organizations seeking product certification.

Quality management system

A credible certification body will have a functioning and effective quality management system (QMS). This system will include written procedures that guide its operations, defined responsibilities and authorities for personnel, clear criteria for certification, and systematic improvement processes. The point is that the certification body should manage itself in a controlled and methodical manner. There’s little credibility in a certification granted by an organization that can’t get its own act together. A quality management system based on ISO 9001 or ISO Guide 65 is recommended, and the certification body should consider having its QMS certified by an independent third party. Some of the symptoms of a certification body that does not have an effective QMS include the following:

• Delays in testing and certification decision
• Lost records and applications
• Misplaced product samples
• Problems that don’t get corrected
• Internal confusion and repeat errors
• Unreceptive to customer feedback
• Inconsistent criteria for product certification

One of the most valuable questions that can be asked of a certification body is, “What is your own quality management system based upon?” If the response is one of confusion, then you can be sure that there is no quality management system in place and the certification scheme might be a sham.

Competent personnel

For a certification body to have any credibility, it must be staffed by personnel who are technically competent in the area of the certification. This type of competency can’t be farmed out to other organizations. Essential in-house competencies include an understanding of the following:

• The product and its features
• Customer requirements and expectations
• Possible product failures and shortcomings
• Legal and regulatory issues applicable to the product

In short, the certification body is staffed with experts in the product. It is possible for the certification body to subcontract the product testing, but it can’t subcontract the technical competence of its people.

The certification body should have established requirements for the competency of its personnel, training on a defined basis, evaluation of effectiveness, and records of training. Only through the training of its personnel and continually maintaining their competencies can a certification body reliably make decisions on product certification.


Finally, a certification body should accredit its product certification scheme. The most widely applied accreditation criteria is defined in the international standard ISO/IEC Guide 65—“General requirements for bodies operating product certification systems.” Accreditation to ISO/IEC Guide 65 is granted by independent third-party organizations who themselves have demonstrated the ability to evaluate other certification bodies in a consistent and fair manner.

Many of the attributes recommended by this article would be difficult for a consumer to verify at a certification body, but one question will generally captures the spirit of all of them: “Is your product certification system accredited to ISO Guide 65?” Failure to go the final step and accredit the product certification system means a cloud hangs over any products certified by that body.