Standards body sees green light

Canadian Standards Association

Up in the northwest part of Metro, on Rexdale Boulevard beside a gigantic flea market, there’s a low, sprawling building as long as two football fields and as deep as one that is home to the Canadian Standards Association.

This is the organization whose CSA logo tells you that your toaster is safe to use, and that the new table lamp you are about to plug into the wall won’t blow up in your face.

For most of its 75-year existence, the sole purpose of the CSA had been to test consumer products to see if they met minimum safety standards. If they did, it authorized manufacturers to stick its logo on the products.

But nine years ago it added a new focus that has transformed it into a significant force in efforts to achieve sustainability. The new focus shifted attention beyond products to process. Now 60 per cent of what the CSA does deals with process: developing and promoting management guidelines. The remaining 40 per cent continues to be testing and certifying products for safety.

The change began in 1987 with quality management. In Europe, manufacturers were becoming increasingly insistent that some way be found to ensure that their suppliers maintained both quality and consistency in the products that the manufacturers were buying.

The International Organization for Standardization, located in Geneva, responded with what it called ISO 9000. It is a series of guidelines that lays out how corporate managers can do that. It became known as quality management.

Companies can hire independent auditors to check on how successful they are in following the guidelines. If they pass the audit, they can promote themselves as ISO 9000 companies and that, as it has turned out, is an important marketing tool not only for manufacturers, but for firms supplying services such as architects, placement agencies, and consultants

CSA got involved with ISO 9000 right away, developing handbooks and guidelines for Canadian companies. And when the ISO moved into « Environmental Management Systems,’’ in 1989 — which it called ISO 14000 — so did the CSA.

Some work of the CSA on environmental management systems has taken it to the frontiers of sustainability. For instance, in 1994, it published a guideline on how to do life cycle assessments. Companies that follow the guideline analyze and adjust everything they do to minimize environmental impact — from the cradle to the grave of their products.

« Using the principle that `matter can neither be created nor destroyed,’’ the CSA guideline says, « you should calculate all significant inputs and outputs from your system.’’

The guideline focuses on « ecosystem healthy, human health, resource depletion, and social health.’’ And it calls on companies to pay attention to impacts « not routinely measured (that) would be difficult to quantify, such as soil erosion, damage to watersheds, thermal pollution, and habitat destruction.’’

Under social health, it adopts advanced thinking in the field of sustainability by directing companies to assess cultural, population and economic change as a result of their activities. In other words it says they need to pay attention to « any measureable or apparent disruption due to noise, odours, potential accident risks, and other environmental effects caused by socioeconomic changes, etc.’’

Its a voluntary system, but, as the CSA says, « In a competitive marketplace, quality products with improved environmental performance can provide a marketing edge.’’

Just recently, the CSA commissioned a study on sustainable communities in the hope that it will be able to identify indicators that can point the way to developing and maintaining strong, viable communities. If so, it can begin work on preparing a community guideline.

The CSA is not perfect. For instance its technical committee that developed the life cycle guideline didn’t have adequate representation from environmental groups, the Consumer Association of Canada, and unions.

However, according to Morton Kaiserman, project manager for new business, everything the CSA offers, is tied to the concept of continual improvement, so we’re entitled to assume CSA will improve its own procedures.

And what it’s offering in the meantime are powerful tools that, in the hands of astute companies, can link private benefit to public good.

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