Saturday 15 April 2017

Standards (we need them)

The original meaning of the word “standard” referred to a flag, the sort of flag an army would fly in a battle so their troops, not always the most organized of people, would know where to go after they overcame their bloodlust and confusion. It was the place they tried to be. It was an objective.

And that’s what standards are today. We have targets, principles and benchmarks that our managers or boards set for us. They’re places we’re meant to go. A standard might be to answer the phone within three rings, to respond to enquiries from prospective customers within twenty-four hours or to resolve a complaint within seven days.

In other words a standard is something that most companies miss.

You’ve only got to see the posts in our Facebook group to see this. We get so many posts complaining about companies that simply fail to meet basic standards of courtesy, responsiveness and basic business sense.

But there’s another type of standard that I think is more important. The standards you see emerging from the Botswana Bureau of Standards. You’ll have seen notices in Mmegi and now online from the Bureau inviting people to comment on draft standards on hundreds, perhaps even thousands of different things, from adhesives to eggs and from kitchen cupboards to cement pipes. It’s hard to find any area of life where BOBS hasn’t approved a standard regarding the quality of goods than are used in Botswana.

But here’s a critical thing. Many of these standards are voluntary. They’re not compulsory. Just because there’s a standard for something it doesn’t automatically mean that it’s illegal not to reach that standard. The best example I know is the general standard for quality management, ISO 9000. This set of standards covers how organisations maintain the highest standards of customer care, internal quality control and management. And it’s a voluntary standards and that’s the way I like it. I don’t want a set of rules saying that customers must be respected, treated with courtesy and always satisfied. The reason I don’t want such rules to be compulsory is that I want there to be variation. I want companies to be able to choose how well they deal with customers so we, the consumers, get to choose who succeeds in business and who fails. I want that power to be in our hands, not someone else’s. Perhaps the best weapon we have in the battle for good service is the power we have to demolish suppliers who offer bad service. We, the consumers, the market, get to decide.

I also believe in choice. I want to be able to choose a builder who uses slightly better, BOBS-certified products rather than the perhaps slightly cheaper builder who uses inferior, not-up-to-standard products. It’ll cost me a little more and I might need to save for a little longer to afford it but the result will be a better, longer-lasting, cheaper-to-maintain house.

But there are certain standards that are compulsory. Not many compared to the voluntary standards, but they’re the important ones. They’re the ones that really matter, that have a direct impact on public safety. They include a range of household electrical equipment such as sockets, plugs and adaptors, electrical irons and water heaters, all things that if they malfunction, can burn down your house. If your house does catch fire maybe you’ll be comforted by the compulsory standards for fire extinguishing equipment that help ensure they work properly when you need them.

On the road you should also feel some comfort knowing that the tyres you bought for your vehicle must have met their standards we well, at least on the day you bought them. What you’ve done to them subsequently is more a job for the police to observe.

At the shops you’ll also be protected by the compulsory standards that govern dairy products such as milk and yoghurt and also peanut butter, canned fish, cereals and pulses.

Perhaps most importantly of all there are standards for drinking water, either from the tap or in bottles. Anyone who supplies you with such water must make they maintain those basic standards.
But there’s more. Did you know there are compulsory standards that cover the wax crayons that our kids use to ensure they’re not full of toxic chemicals? Did you know that there are also several compulsory standards relating to the safety of children’s toys? I suspect that a lot of the toys you see in certain stores would fail those standards miserably.

And then there’s the big one. The standard that has probably caused more controversy than any other in the history of standards in Botswana. Plastic bags.

There’s been controversy about plastic bags for years, what with the reported introduction of a “plastic bag levy” some years ago, something that turned out to be a fiction, despite what the media reported. There never was a levy, no money was collected, no environmental protection efforts were funded by it. It didn’t exist. All that existed was a compulsory standard for plastic carrier bags that required them be of a certain quality. What happened was that stores were forced by this compulsory standard to use better quality bags and the cost of this was passed straight on to you and me, the customers. The answers given by our politicians about this recently simply confirmed this. There is no plan to ban plastic bags, just the continued enforcement of an existing standard.

Meanwhile, I believe very strongly that there should be a plastic bag levy. In fact, I think there should be a levy charged on everything that damages our environment. We need to catch up with the rest of the world that is making us, the people who consume and waste so much, the people that are causing the damage to our environments, to pay to help fix the problem.

While I might be a consumer rights advocate, I’m also a consumer responsibility advocate and the sooner we’re forced to take some responsibility the better. It’s not just industry that needs to meet some standards, it’s you and me as well.

No comments: