Using standards as quality benchmarks

Standards can help you ensure your products, services or business systems meet fixed specifications or quality benchmarks. Their use is voluntary, but can bring a range of business benefits.


12 min read

1. An overview of standards and certification

Customer satisfaction is essential for any business. Working to recognised quality management standards can help you to meet customer expectations and ensure a benchmark for your product or service.

Standards can help you:

  • build or grow the market for your products and services
  • make sure products are compatible and interoperate with other related products
  • boost credibility with customers and suppliers
  • manage your business more effectively
  • make the most of your innovations

This guide sets out what standards are and how they can benefit your business. It also covers the management system standards that can help you run your business more effectively.

2. What is a standard?

Standards can be used across a wide range of business, industry and technology.

The two main types of standards are technical and management system standards.

Technical standards ensure products, manufacturing processes and services meet fixed quality benchmarks. They can be used to:

  • ensure quality and safety requirements for products and services
  • improve compatibility and interoperability between products and services
  • provide information about products and services
  • make the most out of your innovations

Management system standards provide a framework for a business to manage its business processes and activities. They can help businesses improve their efficiency by providing a best practice model for them to follow.

Standards can be anything from a few pages to several hundred pages long.

Are standards a legal requirement?

No - standards are voluntary. But you may need to meet certain standards to comply with particular legal requirements. For example, motorcycle helmets must conform to certain standards before they can be offered for sale in the UK.

You're free to find another way to fulfil your legal obligations - but meeting a standard is normally the best way of doing this.

Showing that your company, product or service meets a specific standard can also help you compete for business from larger businesses or government departments, many of whom have strict standards or criteria that suppliers must comply with. In some instances customers may insist a business uses standards before they feel comfortable purchasing their products or services.

Who develops standards?

There are many national standards bodies throughout the world. As the UK's national standards body, the British Standards Institution works closely with businesses, government, consumer and other groups to ensure that they get the standards that they need.

3. How can standards help my business?

Winning business

Showing that your company, product or service meets a specific standard can help you compete for business from larger businesses or government departments, many of whom stipulate standards as a requirement, against which they invite businesses to compete. In these markets an acknowledged standard may be a prerequisite before customers will buy from you.

Also, if a new client doesn't know exactly the scope of what they want from a contract with you, referencing an appropriate standard and working to that is an excellent way of building customer confidence from the beginning of a relationship.

In some business-to-business markets, purchasers use standards to show that suppliers are providing the correct products and services.

Cost and time-effectiveness

Using the knowledge contained within standards can help to save time and money during a product's research and development. You can also reduce the risk of ending up with an inferior or unsuccessful product. If you, your suppliers and customers are all working to specified standards there will be fewer misunderstandings - saving time and money all round.

Legal compliance

As mentioned previously, conforming to standards can help you comply with a wide range of legal obligations in areas such as product safety and environmental management.

Health and safety

Using standards in areas such as quality and health and safety management can help you manage your business more efficiently and reduce mistakes and problems.

Exporting products

A growing number of standards are based on European and international standards, which enable easier access to export markets that use the same standards.

4. Who develops standards?

The UK’s National Standards Body, BSI (British Standards Institution), was the world’s first national standards body. They collaborate with businesses, government, consumer and other groups to promote different types of standards and publish 3,000 every year, with the aim of encouraging best practice in quality and safety.

BSI is part of ISO (International Organization for Standardization), a federation of national standards bodies from 140 countries, which publishes internationally agreed standards. For example, ISO 9000 is the group of standards for quality management which is also referred to as BS EN ISO 9000.

BSI is also a key member of CEN - Comité Européen de Normalisation (European Committee for Standardization) which promotes technical harmonised standards. BS EN 71 Toy Safety is an example of a standard developed by CEN and adopted by BSI.

There are other standards bodies which focus on more specific areas, such as CENELEC (European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization) and IEC (The International Electrotechnical Commission) which covers electrical and electronic technologies. Despite Brexit, BSI remains a member of CEN and CENELEC.

Other bodies certify businesses for standards in specific areas. For example, the IASME Consortium is the National Cyber Security Centre’s partner, responsible for delivery of the Cyber Essentials certification scheme for cyber security, which focuses on five technical controls to guard against the most frequent cyber security threats.

5. Standards for best business practice

There are a number of widely applied standards used to promote best business and organisational practice. Many businesses adopt certain management systems to ensure they stay competitive.

Five of the most popular standards used by businesses are comprehensive and apply across many industries.

Quality management

ISO 9001 is the most widely used internationally recognised standard for the quality management of a business's systems. It benefits businesses of all sizes in all sectors by helping them improve customer satisfaction, internal efficiency, and employee involvement.

Environmental management

An environmental management system can help you manage your environmental responsibilities and ensure you comply with legal requirements. ISO 14001 is the international standard that specifies a process for controlling and improving a business' environmental performance to contribute to sustainability. Also known as BS EN ISO 14001, it helps businesses identify and control how activities, products and services affect and impact the environment, and how to conserve resources and save money.

Energy management

An energy management system can help your organisation save money, reduce carbon emissions and comply with legislation. ISO 50001 is the most popular comprehensive standard and there are various other standards that relate to energy management which can be found using the search function on the BSI website.

Health and safety management

All businesses must comply with a range of regulations on health and safety in the workplace, and senior managers may also bear legal responsibility for this. One way of ensuring that you meet these requirements is to follow standards on occupational health and safety. ISO 45001 provides recognised guidance on best practice in preventing work-related injury and ill-health and ensuring workplaces are safe and healthy.

Information management

Information - whether held in hard copy form or on IT equipment - is essential to any business, so it's important you safeguard your data. Cyber Essentials is a certification focusing only on online cyber security and is offered by IASME in partnership with the National Cyber Security Centre.

An information security management system provides a systematic approach to managing and securing information and ISO 27001 is the main standard covering information security, cyber security and privacy protection covering people, processes and technology. It is supplemented by other guidance and standards covering how to select the best approach for monitoring, measurement, analysis, evaluation, and managing information security risks.

Risk management and business continuity

ISO 31000 provides comprehensive guidelines to help businesses with risk analysis and assessment. More specifically, organisations face a variety of threats to their business continuity, some deliberately targeted and some as a result of external events.

It is increasingly important that businesses can assure regulators, investors, and stakeholders that their continuity plans will minimise any disruption. ISO 22301 provides guidance for businesses on how to reduce the impact of everyday events, such as IT viruses and supply chain disruption, as well as extreme events such as flash floods or terrorism.

6. Are standards a legal requirement?

Standards are not a legal requirement and their adoption is voluntary. However you may need to meet certain standards to comply with particular legal requirements, for example the CE/UKCA marks referred to in the next section covering products such as motorcycle helmets which must conform to certain standards before they can be offered for sale in the UK.

In other areas, you're free to find another way to fulfil your legal obligations - but meeting a standard is often the best way of doing this.

7. European standards for product safety

In some industries, EU law requires that various standards such as safety, durability and eco-design must be met before products can be sold there, and products must be marked with the CE mark to confirm that they conform. This includes products such as toys, electrical goods, medical devices, measuring container bottles and instruments, machinery, equipment for use outdoors, and many others.

For example, under the Supply of Machinery (Safety) Regulations 2008 certain machinery, equipment and safety components must conform to relevant standards and be CE marked before they can be sold within the UK and EU. The requirements are designed to protect the health and safety of product users and remove technical barriers to trade.

Brexit impact

Following Brexit, for certain products sold in England, Scotland and Wales, it was intended that CE marking would be replaced by UKCA (UK Conformity Assessment) marking. The dates for this replacement have been extended and there are indications that CE could still be accepted to save businesses the burden of securing two different marks as CE marking will still be required to market products in EU markets. BSI and the UK Government provide more information about these changes.

Is this relevant to my products?

Standards can help you comply with EU directives covering a wide range of products, including:

  • appliances burning gaseous fuels
  • construction products
  • electrical and electronic apparatus in terms of their electromagnetic compatibility
  • equipment and protective systems in potentially explosive atmospheres
  • gas appliances
  • household appliances in terms of the noise they emit
  • lifts
  • low voltage equipment
  • machinery, mechanical equipment and safety products
  • medical devices
  • new hot water boilers fired with liquid or gaseous fluids
  • non-automatic weighing instruments
  • outdoor construction and gardening equipment in terms of the noise they produce
  • personal protective equipment such as gloves, helmets and protective clothing
  • pressure equipment such as industrial pipework and pressurised storage containers
  • radio and telecommunications terminal equipment
  • recreational craft
  • toys

Testing and certification

How you go about getting CE marking and putting it on your product depends on the product and EU directive in question. Each individual directive generally specifies how you must show your product meets the relevant requirements. You may have to:

  • produce a self-declaration that your product complies - usually backed up by your own, or independent test results

  • get your product inspected or tested by an authorised independent testing body

Your approach to testing and certification will link with other aspects of how you develop new products and services.

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