More often than not, it’s the simple things in life that give us reason to pause and consider how lucky we are. Last Sunday, after getting up early (thanks again, Baby James) and busily chopping, mashing, seasoning and roasting my way through the morning, I experienced this small gratitude-filled hiatus at the sight of three generations of family gathered around my kitchen table.

I zone back to the present when a friend’s five-year-old points to the kitchen tap that I’ve left running over a lettuce in the sink. “Turn it off ! Water is precious !” He’s right, of course. Even in Switzerland (whose green and grassy landscape is adequately rained on all year round), water is a resource that needs to be conserved, like any other. I smile and shut off the tap, as my father-in-law affectionately rolls his eyes at me. “I don’t know where they get it from. School, I suppose. They’re so eco-conscious these days.”

The theme of the environment, and how our relationship to it has changed over the years, gives us a lot to talk about as plates are passed around and glasses filled and emptied. I reflect on the story of ISO and its own evolution toward standards that touch all aspects of our environment, from reducing toxic substances to sustainable growth. How have society’s ideas about ecology influenced standards from their industrial beginnings to becoming a benchmark for protecting the planet?

Mum knows best

The journey begins in 1947, with my mother. She was born just after the War, and came into the world at a time when loss and destruction were slowly being ousted by progress, reconstruction and, above all, hope.

It’s no coincidence that this was the same year that ISO was founded. Re-growth simply couldn’t have happened without a coordinated effort, and all the rebuilding had to begin with factories, jobs, houses and infrastructure. The role that ISO had to play was clear.

Mum explains how, looking back, “we were growing up in a new time of plenty. So shutting off taps, switching off lights, and the gloomy, make-do austerity of the war was maybe forgotten. We had labour-saving gadgets and white goods, the miracle of television, unheard-of leisure time and affordable travel”. If the world’s resources seemed inexhaustible, it was understandable: 70 years ago, the world population was just 2.4 billion. That’s less than the combined population of India and China today.

My brother-in-law, Étienne, an environmental engineer at Switzerland’s National Arboretum in Aubonne, gives some useful context to the debate: “Today, there are so many things that we have to concern ourselves with. We’re only just beginning to understand the way that these things interrelate. But back in 1947, it was the dawn of environmental awareness.
“In fact, one of the first pieces of major environmental legislation was passed at that time in the USA, to control the use of pesticides. Their use was really taking off at that time as farming industrialized.”

We could all fit on Jamaica (theoretically)1)

In 1977, 30 years after ISO was created, I helped to bump world population to 4.2 billion. I remember taking rides as a kid in the back of our estate wagon with the family dog. This was years before rear seat-belts were mandatory. In fact, I had children of my own by the time ISO 13216 gave rise to the now-famous “ISOFIX” term associated with safe child transport. My father-in-law adds: “Back then, air pollution was such a remote concept. Even lighting up a cigarette at the wheel of the family car was considered an OK way to while away a stressful traffic jam! And fuel economy was a political issue prompted by the ‘oil crisis’ that led to the demise of ‘proper’ cars.” (Though he is very proud of his latest-generation hybrid and its ultra-low emissions determined according to ISO 23274.)

The concept of sustainability and acceptable trade-offs between economic, social and environmental factors wasn’t widely understood either. Despite awareness of its toxicity, lead was added to petrol to help preserve engines. It wasn’t until 1986 that Japan led the way (no pun intended) in cleaning up vehicle fumes, and by 1988 ISO 9158 had set a standard for petrol pumps to deliver cleaner, unleaded fuel.

The wake-up call

Things were starting to change fast. I remember eating iodine pills in the wake of Chernobyl and losing sleep over scientists’ discovery of a ‘hole’ in the ozone layer and a floating trash pile in the Pacific Ocean as big as a country. But at the same time, as I was learning about these things, I felt general awareness growing.

People were starting to talk about these issues. Étienne is more specific: “There was hope when the decade came to a close, with a ban on ocean dumping, the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the effective ban of CFCs. The 1990s started with the Earth Summit in Rio, setting an environmentally focused agenda.” Government, society and even business were taking a new turn, while ISO stepped up to very different sorts of challenges to the ones faced in 1947. ISO 14001 on environmental management arrived in 1996 and has since become one of the most widely used and recognized International Standards.

Great things happen

The discussion goes on, and as dessert makes way for coffee, I share my own part of the journey. In 2007, I came to Switzerland to work for the International Organization for Standardization. ISO was 60 years old and an established force in solving the global issues that defined much of my generation’s thinking. I had school-aged children by then, and their arrival helped to push the number of people on the planet to a staggering 6.5 billion.

Ten years on, the population is still growing and the youngest are asking questions about how to manage resources in the fairest way possible. It’s clear, sitting around the table, that everyone has a different perspective, but that we can still progress. The way to move on, and determine the best course of action, is by openly discussing the alternatives, informed by experts. That’s what gives me confidence about ISO’s ability to remain relevant at 70, and long into the future, as the next generation looks for solutions to problems that we, like our grandparents before us, could never have imagined.

1) If each person took up around 1 m2, then 4.2 billion people would require about 4200 km2. Jamaica is around 10 000 km, so even accounting for cliffs, waterfalls and other terrain that could not be stood upon, we could just about fit. Possibly. Maybe ISO’s Jamaican member BSJ knows the answer?