In our increasingly global economy, it should perhaps be surprising that if you order a product or service from anywhere in the world, you can usually expect it to meet your requirements. Of course, this isn't always the case, but as an example, a 2018 report showed that of all the products people order from Amazon, the company maintains a mere 5.5 percent average return rate.

One of the reasons for this is that companies that provide products and services know that people expect them to meet certain standards. A key part of this has been the influence of the International Standards Organization, or ISO.


In 2019, ISO has published 22,708 International Standards and associated documents to help organizations become better at what they do for just about every industry, including technology, healthcare, food safety and agriculture.

The Function of ISO

ISO is an independent non-governmental organization that was established in 1947. With a head office in Geneva, Switzerland, it has a membership of 163 national standard organizations all across the world. It has 783 technical committees and subcommittees that gather and distribute information all across the world in order to maintain international standards that are:

  • voluntary
  • consensus-based
  • market-relevant
  • innovative
  • designed to solve global challenges.

Five Core Principles

ISO standards are based on five key principles:

1. Response to Needs: ISO develops standards only when requested by an industry, a consumer group or other stakeholders. In most cases, these groups contact its national member association, which then forwards the request to ISO.

2. Global Expert Opinion: Experts and committees from across the world discuss and negotiate all aspects of an ISO standard before it is approved.

3. Multi-Stakeholder Process: In addition to experts and committees, there are consumer associations, academics, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and government bodies involved.

4. Consensus: ISO standards are developed only in a consensus-based environment. Comments from all stakeholders are always taken into account before a standard is finalized.

The Purpose of ISO Standards

ISO standards are designed to make products and services better and to make companies, governments and other organizations more efficient. Some standards are designed for specific industries, like the food industry, or designed to help improve the environment. Of the many ISO standards available, five of the most common include:

ISO 9000 is a family of Quality Management System (QMS) standards to ensure organizations produce quality products and services. This family includes the ISO 9001 standard.

ISO 14000 establishes requirements for an Environmental Management System (EMS) that is based on continuous improvement.

ISO 27000 is a family of standards for information technology, with the aim of improving information security and protecting company assets.

ISO 22000 is for implementing a food safety management system.

ISO 50001 is a newer standard released in 2011. It is for companies requiring an Energy Management System (EMS) for improving energy use and efficiency.

The Role of ISO 9001 Certification

One of the most prevalent ISO standards is ISO 9001. This standard sets the criteria for quality management systems. It can be used by any organization, regardless of the organization's size or industry. In 2019, there are over one million organizations in over 170 countries certified for ISO 9001. Its role is to ensure customers get high-quality products and services. ISO 9001 is based on seven quality management principles:

  1. Customer focus
  2. Leadership
  3. Engagement of people
  4. Process approach
  5. Improvement
  6. Evidence-based decision-making
  7. Relationship management

Certification is not mandatory. However, businesses often find that some companies and government bodies may insist on dealing only with companies that are ISO 9001 certified. Even if a client does not require your business to be certified, adopting this standard will usually improve your company's processes.

Only an organization can be ISO 9001 certified, not individual people. The process requires that your company get the current ISO 9001 requirements and adopt them into your business. Then a Certification Body or Registrar can audit your performance. Once you pass the audit, the Registrar will issue your company an ISO 9001 Certificate for a three-year period.