Purchasers without a background in the quality field often have trouble understanding what “our factory is certified” really means. I will try to clarify it in this article.
How does it work?
A factory that wants to get a certification (also called “accreditation”) needs to pay a company (which is itself a certified “registrar”) to get such a document. The registrar will audit the factory and certify that it is compliant to a certain standard.
Regular re-audits will be necessary to renew the certification. In principle, if serious nonconformities are noticed, the renewal is impossible.
Note that a factory’s certification has nothing to do with the certification of its products.
What are the most common standards?
ISO 9001 (Quality Management System)
This is by far the most popular “management standard”, with a focus on quality. It lays out what a technical committee considered to be the very minimum any company should comply with, if they aim at satisfying their customers and at improving over time.
In practice, a lot of Chinese companies got ISO 9001 certified even though they don’t deserve it. It is too easy with the right registrar, since registrars that are too strict can’t get clients. Commercial considerations often prime.
That’s why I beware of accreditations delivered by publicly listed companies (SGS, Bureau Veritas, etc.) and of course by Chinese registrars.
ISO 14001 – Environmental Management
This more recent standard has been fashionable over the past few years. It is the equivalent of ISO 9001, but related to respect of the environment rather than quality.
SA 8000 (Social Responsibility)
This one is pretty hard to get. The auditor takes a good look at the following areas: child labor, forced labor, health & safety, freedom of association, discrimination, disciplinary practices, working hours, and remuneration.
It sets certain rules regardless of the country, and the application of local laws (whichever is stricter).
OHSAS 18001 (Health & safety)
I admit I don’t know much about this standard, which will probably be replaced by ISO 45001 soon.
Other types of certifications
In addition to general standards, there are many industry-specific standards: AS9100C, OSO/TS 16949, etc.
There are also customer-specific standards — a large buyer defines a standard and requires its suppliers to comply with it.
Tips for the smart importer
If a potential suppliers tells you they have a certification, should you simply accept this as a fact? I would advise to follow the following advice:
- Always ask for the company’s business registration certificate and for the certificate
- Check if the names match between these two documents, and also with the supplier’s email signature and business card
- Check the validity date of the certificate
- Check if the scope written on the certificate includes manufacturing your products
- Call the registrar and ask them if they have accredited this company (there are lots of fake certificates around)
Tips specific for ISO 9001 certifications
Ask for the quality manual (which might be only in Chinese, unfortunately) and check:
- What basic information (employees..) is written about the company? Is it the same as they told you?
- Look at the objectives they have set for themselves. Believe it or not, but a factory can be certified as compliant to the ISO 9001 standard if its stated objective is “less than 30% of defects”.
- What exclusions did they apply relative to clause 7 (product realization), and do they seem justified?
- Do they simply repeat the standard when you read the manual? It is a signal that they just prepared paperwork to get certified, rather than living and breathing the standard.
- If they claim certifications to several standards (ex ISO 9001 and 14001): have they prepared an integrated management system? Again, having several manuals screams “it’s just paperwork”.
Maybe some readers have other tips?