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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > If You Want to Know What the Standards Are, Try Asking

In 1904, during the massive Baltimore fire which destroyed over 1,500 buildings, firefighters from surrounding cities and towns rushed to help only to learn that their hoses did not fit Baltimore’s hydrants. Those frustrated fireman were reminded of the importance of standards. It is time for consumers to be more aware of the uses and abuses of industry standards that affect their pocketbooks and their safety.

The thousands of trade standards–for such products as soaps, refrigerators, hosiery, radios and TVs, vacuum cleaners, meat products, pesticides, floor coverings–are supposed to tell buyers what to expect from sellers. These standards are set by technical associations dominated by corporate representatives from industries concerned with particular products specifications, performance, terms or testing methods.

For example, the Society of Automotive Engineers has numerous committees whose members hail from the automotive industries to set standards for parts of automobiles. Standards for brakes or brake fluids are basically set by employees of GM, Ford Motor Co. and other automotive companies.

In recent years, consumer groups have increased their criticism of the procedures and power of these standards organizations. They charge that these organizations do not provide for adequate consumer representatives to sit on the various committees and do not publish dissenting technical opinions when standards are issued.

For all the good that standards do to permit complex products to function, there are enough serious abuses to command greater congressional attention and Federal Trade Commission inquiry.

Some standards activities have served to stifle competition, suppress innovation, head off government safety standards and shortchange consumers. Congressional hearings have revealed how one standards association, simply by not approving the device, kept off the American market for years an energy saving system for gas furnaces that has been widely used in Europe.

Other hearings have shown how lighting standards for schools and other buildings, uncritically adopted by local laws, greatly overlight the rooms and consume wasteful amounts of electricity. This has pleased the lighting fixtures manufacturers and the utilities, which, over the years, were responsible for escalating these lighting standards.

There have been calls from the consumer movement for the government to establish testing and standards facilities that would protect both taxpayers and consumers. Since government is a large purchaser of products–from clothing to typewriter–such facilities would locate the best buys, reduce spending, inform the consumer about comparative values and generate less self-serving standards than would industry-dominated groups.

Both the General Services Administration–the federal government’s “housekeeper” and procurement arm–and the Bureau of Standards have heard these calls, but they do not seem to be listening or reacting.

So, more consumers need to sensitize themselves both to the marketplace and the more general issues of how standards are set. Next time you shop ask the salesperson what standards the item you wish to purchase meets. If you get a blank look, ask for the supervisor or manager. Retail people need more education about standards themselves, and you can prod them to learn.

For instance, when you buy shoes, ask about the standard that is supposed to assure safety and traction for footwear. If you have ever slipped because of slippery new shoes, your question should start an interesting discussion.

Or, when you shop for hosiery, you may want to be informed about a standard for snag resistance issued by the American National Standards Institute. Such a standard may be news to many frustrated buyers of hosiery, but it does exist. Shouldn’t the retailer be able to tell you whether it is a facade or whether it serves to inform the consumer about what he or she is buying?

The Senate Committee on the Judiciary has just published a nine-page booklet entitled “Questions and Answers About Trade Product Standards: A Primer For Consumers.” It will tell you much more about standards than why Superman always wins in the end (a standard of the Comics Magazine Association of America).

You can obtain a copy free by writing to the Judiciary Committee, U.S. Senate, Washington, D.C., 20510. After reading it, you’ll have even more inquisitive fun shopping in the marketplace.