The circular economy: building trust through conformity assessment

Economic practices need to change. The environmental and social consequences of unsustainable growth strategies are becoming increasingly obvious. A circular economy offers a way to counteract the climate crisis, strengthen our adaptive capacity and make society more sustainable and resilient. Standards and conformity assessment are part of the solution.

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The circular economy reduces the need for resources extracted from nature because it ensures that products are reused as many times as possible and materials are recycled. Resources and energy no longer go to waste as the unwanted by-products from one economic process are fed back into another in a never-ending flow.

When products are passed on from one person to another, and used materials re-enter the value chain, consumers and companies need reassurance: Are the goods still safe and undamaged? Are they designed to last?

That’s where ISO standards and tools to assess conformity come in. While sustainability standards define requirements in line with circular economy principles, such as durability, reusability, upgradability, or repairability, conformity assessment offers tools to demonstrate that these requirements are met.

Conformity assessment standards, the so-called CASCO Toolbox, provide internationally recognized tools to ensure competent, consistent and reliable conformity assessment.

Tools for a changing world economy: standards and conformity assessment

Few could have predicted how much the world has changed in just a few decades. As the 21st century unfolds, we are dealing with a complex brew of social, environmental, market and technological trends.

Faced with ongoing uncertainty, how can businesses and governments adapt and grow? Standards and conformity assessment deliver part of the solution in solving today’s most daunting challenges.

Almost all sectors and industries are threatened by the effects of climate change, either directly or indirectly. Approved in September 2021, the London Declaration defines ISO’s commitment to climate action. The ISO portfolio of standards helps organizations assess climate change impacts and put plans in place for effective action.

A circular economy lies at the heart of climate action. Today’s unsustainable production and consumption patterns are known to cause environmental degradation, resource depletion and waste, while accentuating the inequalities across countries. There is an urgent need to move towards a more circular model that redefines the economy around principles of designing out waste and pollution, and keeping products and materials in use for as long as possible.

Sustainability standards, with a specific focus on a circular economy, are being developed at the country and global levels by a number of organizations including ISO, through its technical committee ISO/TC 323.

Efforts are underway for eco-design standards which consider the sustainable consumption of materials, energy and other resources at all stages of the product development process. Providing a comprehensive set of principles, these will look at environmental factors such as the consumption of resources and energy, emissions to air, water and soil, as well as the pollution resulting from noise, vibration, radiation, electromagnetic fields and other physical effects.

Other areas of focus include waste materials produced during the production process and recycling (i.e. reuse and recovery of materials and/or of energy). Also in development is a series of design requirements for product durability, reusability, upgradability and repairability, and for the recyclability of devices such as electronic displays, commercial refrigeration appliances, washing machines and vacuum cleaners.

While standards exist to cover different aspects of a circular economy, conformity assessment offers tools to demonstrate that these specifications are met, and thereby provides trust and confidence to the market, which is needed more than ever.

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What is the circular economy?

With its promise to transform the current economic paradigm, the circular economy is emerging as the new approach for achieving sustainable economic development. This calls for a radical shift in production and consumption patterns, supported by a raft of new government policies.

Circularity consists of measures for creating shorter closed-loop materials and energy cycles that:

  • Minimize pollution and waste
  • Extend product life cycles
  • Enable the broad sharing of natural assets

A circular process must encompass both tangible and intangible requirements, including sustainability of the global value chain based on aspects such as trade, economic factors, corporate responsibility, labour, health and human rights. Conformity assessment gives confidence on specific aspects such as safety, efficiency, repairability, durability, upgradability, recyclability and reusability – all of which contribute to the robustness of the circle.

Conformity assessment and the CASCO Toolbox

Conformity assessment shows whether a product, service, process, system, or sometimes a claim or person, meets the relevant requirements. Defined rules and procedures are applied to demonstrate the fulfilment of such requirements which are stated in standards, regulations, contracts, programmes, or other normative documents.

Conformity assessment provides assurance that specified needs or expectations are being met.

Conformity assessment activities are performed by conformity assessment bodies (CABs). They are usually categorized according to their activities, scope and independence:

  • “Third-party” activity: a conformity assessment activity performed by a body that is independent of the provider of the assessed object and has no user interest in the object
  • “First-party” activity: a conformity assessment activity performed by the provider
  • “Second-party” activity: a conformity assessment activity performed by entities with user interests

To ensure a CAB is competent and can be trusted, these entities rely on standards that can be found in the ISO/IEC 17000 series of standards for conformity assessment, the so-called CASCO Toolbox. Some of these standards are explained in more details below. They contain requirements for competence, impartiality and consistent operation, which serve as a basis for recognizing the reliability of CABs.

Types of conformity assessment activities

Many different conformity assessment activities can provide reassurance to economic actors as we transition towards a circular economy. The most relevant are:

Testing

Testing is the process used to determine the characteristics of a test item or sample (the object of conformity assessment) according to a procedure. Requirements for testing and calibration laboratories are specified in the ISO/IEC 17025 standard which enables laboratories to demonstrate that they are technically competent, impartial and consistently able to produce valid and reliable results.

Inspection

Inspection is the examination of an item (the object of conformity assessment) and determination of its conformity with detailed requirements or, on the basis of professional judgement, with general requirements. Requirements for inspection bodies are specified in the ISO/IEC 17020 standard.

Validation

Validation provides confirmation that the information declared as “claim” (the object of conformity assessment) is plausible with regard to the intended future use. Requirements for validation bodies are specified in the ISO/IEC 17029 standard.

Verification

Verification provides confirmation that the information declared as “claim” (the object of conformity assessment) is truthfully stated. Requirements for verification bodies are specified in the ISO/IEC 17029 standard.

Certification

Certification provides an independent (third-party) attestation of conformity. Requirements for certification bodies are specified in the standards ISO/IEC 17021-1 (for management systems as objects of conformity assessment), ISO/IEC 17065 (for products, processes and services as objects of conformity assessment) and ISO/IEC 17024 (for persons as objects of conformity assessment).

In addition to these standards, the CASCO Toolbox contains requirements for accreditation bodies (ISO/IEC 17011), general specifications of a supplier’s declarations (ISO/IEC 17050) and marks of conformity (ISO/IEC 17030).

Conformity assessment systems

Based on the relevant CASCO standard, conformity assessment bodies can recognize each other as competent – whether they are public entities (for example a governmental inspection authority) or private ones for example a certification body).

Using the standards from the ISO/IEC 17000 series ensures harmonized conformity assessment practices across all conformity assessment bodies (CABs), allowing statements of conformity to be issued that are comparable worldwide.

Multilateral arrangements made on this basis ensure mutual recognition among CABs as well as the mutual acceptance of assessment results and conformity statements.

How conformity assessment activities (e.g. testing, inspection, validation, verification, certification) build trust in the circular economy

Conformity assessment provides assurance that specified needs or expectations are being met. Regardless of whether it is a simple check, an extensive investigation, or a complex professional judgement, the CASCO Toolbox supports common approaches to conformity assessment.

Performed in the context of the circular economy, conformity assessment adds substance and credibility to the statement that products, processes, services, systems or claims meet specific requirements, thereby providing confidence in aspects such as recyclability, reusability, repairability, upgradability, etc.

Trustworthy technical cycles

Consumers and companies will only invest in products that are shared with others or made from recycled materials if they can trust that the products are safe, reliable and fit for purpose. Similarly, when goods that are built to last are brought to market at a higher price than competitors’ merchandise, their promise of longevity needs to be credible. This is where conformity assessment can provide solutions. The infographic below illustrates how conformity assessment tools apply throughout the technical cycle, providing trust and confidence to the market.

Conformity assessment activities along the value chain help close the loops in technical cycles.

Safe and efficient resource recovery in biological cycles

From the field to the plate, from the woods to the paper shredder, there are many stages along the food and fibre value chains where waste can be avoided. To get the most out of our precious natural resources, these need to circulate among the different economic actors. Farmers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers need to know exactly what they are buying in terms of food, fabrics, fodder, fuel and other natural raw materials. The infographic below illustrates how conformity assessment tools apply throughout the biological cycle, providing transparency and assurance.

Conformity assessment activities help maximize the recovery of nutrients and energy within biological cycles.

To better understand the various processes described in these infographics and how conformity assessment activities can support the circular economy, please have a look at the practical examples below.

CASCO tools provide answers to a number of questions market participants will be asking themselves when they embark on the road towards a more circular economy. The examples listed below will help you better understand the infographics above, illustrating the two types of circular resource flows.

Approach/solution: Used materials can be tested in a laboratory to assess their suitability for meltdown and recasting.

๐Ÿ›  Applicable CASCO tool: The ISO/IEC 17025 standard enables laboratories to demonstrate that they are technically competent, impartial and consistently able to produce valid and reliable results.

Approach/solution: Inspection with professional judgement can be used to examine whether the type of assembly or individual assemblies are still fit for purpose.

๐Ÿ›  Applicable CASCO tool: Fulfilling the requirements of standard ISO/IEC 17020 ensures that inspection bodies consistently carry out competent and impartial inspections.

Approach/solution: The plausibility of such claims can be confirmed in a validation process.

๐Ÿ›  Applicable CASCO tool: The ISO/IEC 17029 standard ensures consistent operation and impartiality of validation/verification bodies, which is understood to be a confirmation of reliability of information declared in claims.

Approach/solution: The truthfulness of the information contained in a declaration can be confirmed in a verification process.

๐Ÿ›  Applicable CASCO tool: Standard ISO/IEC 17029 as it also applies to verification bodies, ensuring consistent operation and impartiality.

Approach/solution: Products can be certified, including by testing of the product and auditing of the production processes.

๐Ÿ›  Applicable CASCO tool: The standard ISO/IEC 17065 gives assurance that products, processes or services conform with specified requirements in standards and other normative documents of a certification scheme.

Approach/solution: Services can be certified, including through evaluation of the service provision.

๐Ÿ›  Applicable CASCO tool: Standard ISO/IEC 17065 as it also applies to the certification of services.

Approach/solution: Processes can be certified, including by auditing the process operation and verification of data.

๐Ÿ›  Applicable CASCO tool: Standard ISO/IEC 17065 as it also applies to the certification of processes.

Approach/solution: The management system can be certified.

๐Ÿ›  Applicable CASCO tool: Certification bodies using the ISO/IEC 17021 series of standards ensure the competence of their audit teams, adequate resources, following a consistent process, and deliver impartial results.

Approach/solution: The persons carrying out maintenance and repair can be certified.

๐Ÿ›  Applicable CASCO tool: The standard ISO/IEC 17024 ensures that certification bodies operating certification schemes for persons operate in a consistent, comparable and reliable manner.

Case snapshots

Ship recycling is part of a global value chain in which European shipowners use recycling yards abroad. Poor recycling conditions cause environmental degradation and accidents of workers.

The regulation of ship recycling in Europe has come a long way since the EU brought into force new rules for the clean and safe dismantling of ships. The EU Ship Recycling Regulation states that independent verifiers should be accredited as inspection bodies to ISO/IEC 17020. The objective of the Regulation is to reduce the negative impacts linked to the recycling of ships flying the flag of Member States of the Union. The use of competent organizations to carry out the verification provides confidence to the regulator that the work is being carried out effectively.

Source: EU Commission website.

International rules for asbestos management on maritime vessels ensure a safe environment for crew, passengers and other persons who could be exposed to this hazardous substance if it was used in a ship’s construction.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO)’s International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), 1974, introduced the first major ban on asbestos for ships built before 1 July 2002. This was later extended by the SOLAS 2009 Amendments (Resolution, MSC.282(86)), the IMO Hong Kong Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships (2009; SR/CONF/45) and subsequent IMO circulars, which prohibit the new installation of asbestos-containing materials on all ships since 1 January 2011.

Asbestos (and other hazardous products) detected on board the ship must now be listed in an Inventory of Hazardous Materials. Some countries are aware that asbestos-free declarations can be inaccurate and insist that a ship registered under their flag has a verification asbestos survey performed by a marine specialist ISO/IEC 17020-accredited company, so that any asbestos found can be removed before the ship is registered. Accreditation based on this standard demonstrates compliance with the International Maritime Organization.

Source: Public Sector Assurance case study.

Events, whether big or small, often lead to energy and resource waste. ISO’s standard for sustainable events management, ISO 20121, was developed to relieve the strain on the environment as well as on local infrastructure and utilities where events are hosted. The London 2012 Olympics was the first major event to achieve ISO 20121 certification and has been highly influential in the standard’s creation and development.

Several factors contribute to the sustainability of an event: from the choice of location to environmental protection, from the well-being of workers to sharing responsible choices with suppliers. These decisions lie at the core of today’s climate commitments, which the Paris Climate Change Conference (COP21) honoured by being ISO 20121-certified, later followed by COP24 and COP26. With a certification process that requires constant monitoring and the definition of precise improvement objectives, ISO 20121 can be considered a continuous stimulus to change.

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