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Standardization processes and legislation

“The most energy-efficient vacuum cleaner is the broom”

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It’s only norms and standards that allow you to compare products and services. That stands to reason right away. Yet hardly any of us deal with these subjects on a day-to-day basis. For Jens Giegerich from Vorwerk Elektrowerke this is another story. He was recently awarded the DIN Innovation Award from the German Institute for Standardization (Deutsches Institut für Normung e.V. – DIN) for his work as a chairman at the European committee for material efficiency. Good reason to talk with him about standardization processes and legislation. 

Jens, you work at Vorwerk Elektrowerke in the field of “Technical Regulatory Affairs, Standardization and Associations” – how long does it usually take for you to explain what you do?

Well, the classic elevator pitch is usually not quite enough. (laughs) That I look after norms and standards in a wider sense and keep a close eye on legal requirements in the process usually takes at least some explaining. Just like the specific topics do, such as material efficiency. And it takes even longer if I then mention that I have rather a horizontal view when looking at these areas. This means that I’m involved in developing norms that then apply to all products – from the fridge to the vacuum cleaner.

When you speak about standardization and legislation – how are these areas connected?

At EU level, the process largely consists of three steps or instances: the legislator (the EU Commission) draws up a draft bill, which first entails basic intentions, such as: “A device should be safe.” What this means is then laid out in standards worked out in expert panels and described in test procedures. And the market surveillance, which is often integrated in the environment ministries of the individual federal states in Germany, verifies whether the manufacturers comply with the specifications. It buys and examines products and then follows a prescribed procedure in the event of anomalies – from warning letters to more severe sanctions.

Jens Giegerich

has been working for Vorwerk Elektrowerke since 2016 and is actually a trained chemist. He studied and was awarded a doctoral degree in Würzburg. Already for his first employer, the Mechanical Engineering Industry Association (Verband Deutscher Maschinen- und Anlagenbauer – VDMA), he dealt with the subject of standardization and through committee work got to know his present supervisor there. In addition to his involvement in the standardization process, the 32-year-old looks after security aspects and matters relating to legislation in the Technical Regulatory Affairs team. But his latest and most time-intensive hobby, as he says himself, is material efficiency

So in the second instance you work out the foundations for complying with legislation – which requires a lot of committee work. What do you like most about your work?

What’s particularly exciting is the communication with the many people from the most diverse backgrounds. After all, it’s not just industrial experts from all walks of life that are on the standardization committees, but also representatives of NGOs and consumer protection. Listening to the different opinions, discussing topics and sometimes looking at them from an entirely different perspective really is a lot of fun. Of course this can occasionally be exhausting, too, as it takes a lot of convincing to reach compromises. But I think it’s important that with our work on guidelines, we ensure that products are used for longer or recycled in a better way at the end of their life cycle. Environmental awareness is paramount when it comes to material efficiency, and this inspires me.

For me, the term “material efficiency” immediately ties up with the question about alternative material. But that doesn’t get to the heart of the matter, according to what you’ve just said. What exactly played a role here in the standardization process?

I’ll need to elaborate a bit for that: in 2005, a framework regulation at EU level concerning environmentally friendly product design took effect, in which it was stipulated that products should be designed in an energy-efficient and resource-saving manner. As the subject of energy efficiency is relatively easy to measure and compare, this area was initially given more attention. I believe everyone is by now familiar with one of the results – the labels for energy efficiency on electric appliances, like fridges.

But in terms of energy consumption, the potential for optimizing electronic devices was nearly at its upper limit. Sure, the most energy-efficient vacuum cleaner is the broom, but of course the appliances should also serve their purpose. So it was about resource efficiency at another level and the key questions: how can the durability of products be increased long-term? How do you improve the reparability and recyclability in creating norms for these? To come back to your question – the type of material is not the focus and is just one possible aspect.

And the standards for material efficiency have now been worked out?

Some of the standards have already been published – for example those on the recyclability of products. Others are still in the process of being adapted. The standardization process is planned pretty much to the last detail and takes about three years. The drafts that are created at EU level are played back to the national expert committees. The standard is only published when these have been passed there.

In any case, it’s now a matter of developing product-specific guidelines – also for vacuum cleaners, for example – on the basis of the general standards.

The award does make me happy, as it shows that standardization is taken seriously.

The period of three years is quite long in light of new technological developments. How do we prevent standardization from being overtaken by innovations?

The committees working on the identification of standards do not stop their work after the guidelines are published. They meet up less frequently, of course, but still review on a regular scale whether adjustments need to made. As a rule, at the latest every five years it is assessed whether the resolutions still comply with the state of the art.

When new, later product-specific standards take hold, can these drastically affect the previous work in the company? 

As long as legislation has not been implemented, adhering to standards is voluntary. But of course there is growing pressure on companies not to fall behind the competition – the “sustainability” criterion, after all, is becoming more and more important to the customers. And that’s a good thing.

As the mandate has already been named accordingly, there’ll definitely be legislation on material efficiency in the near future. The standards that have been and will be developed are the basis for it when the time comes.

Jens, last question: you were awarded the German Institute for Standardization’s Innovation Award for your committed efforts in material efficiency. What does this kind of distinction mean to you?

It really does make me happy, as it shows that the subject is taken seriously. At Vorwerk, I’ve always sensed that the focus is on sustainability. But since school students have been striking on Fridays and the social discourse has severely shifted, other people have followed my work with more interest, too. Yet the greatest acknowledgment for me is not so much the award but to see that other industrial branches are adopting the results of my work.