ISO has released its 30th annual “ISO Survey,” providing data on total certificates worldwide for ISO 9001, ISO 14001, and other standards. The latest report includes data as of 2020.


The ISO Survey was originally launched in 1990 as The Mobil Survey, published by Mobil Oil Co. ISO took over the reporting in 1996, and has published it consistently ever since. Originally the surveys were labeled as “cycles,” a naming convention which ISO dropped, but which I like to maintain for historical purposes — the 2020 data represents the 30th Cycle by that naming system.

Every year since 2002, Oxebridge has released a corresponding “ISO Survey Analysis” report which tries to look past ISO’s generic (and often misleading) press release blurbs, to see the real trends behind the data. While ISO has changed its reporting methods over the years, Oxebridge has been carefully collecting the data since 1993, and then merges the data so that it remains consistent. That allows us to have more accurate trend reporting over the full period from 1993 to present.

China’s (Fake?) Certs Help ISO Save Face

Last year’s report showed the “bleeding” of ISO 9001 certificates worldwide lessening, and this year would have provided a similar result, had China not stepped in with some suspicious numbers.

Where 2018 saw the largest drop in ISO 9001 certificates in all of human history, 2019 saw a slight 0.5% increase over that disaster. Now 2020 shows another overall increase, but of a more significant step up: +3.63% from last year.

Of course, in the official editorial cover page that is included in the annual Survey, ISO just pads the numbers by claiming an increase is “4%” and not 3, but my numbers are based on a careful year-by-year alignment of reporting methods. ISO likes to shake up their Survey data to make it confusing to compare year-to-year data, allowing them to claim a padded increase. I overcome that shuffling.

Normally, a 3% increase wouldn’t be a good sign, but given how poorly ISO 9001 has been doing — and given the bloodbath it took in 2018 — any positive number is a blessing from the gods. In this case, however, we can’t blame any gods since religion is largely banned in China, and that’s who saved the day.

China showed a suspiciously whopping increase of 68,410 certificates in just 2020 alone, bringing their total up to 324,621. That was a one-year jump of 16%.

Had China’s numbers remained largely flatlined over the last year, that dramatic increase would have forced ISO to actually report a modest loss overall.  So ISO’s incessant pandering to China may have paid off.

The problem, of course, is that there is zero reason to believe the numbers coming out of Beijing. The ruling CCP government has passed literal laws to help enhance the reputation of China’s manufacturing, as well as projects and programs like the Made in China 2025 Plan and the Belt and Road Initiative. Now factor in that if a government official were to report that China’s ISO 9001 totals were declining, he’d have to face a very uncomfortable discussion with the ruling Party. And remember: the head of China’s national accreditation body, CNAS, is also the head of the International Accreditation Forum (IAF) which also has its reputation tied closely to the success of ISO 9001.

So Xiao Jianhua has two reasons to ensure the data coming from CNAS, and then sent to ISO for inclusion in the survey, is false as fuck.

ISO has no reason or inclination to do a second of fact-checking either, since doing so would only further burn up their reputation if they had to report another year of losses.

So we are not likely to ever know what really is going on, but overall, the picture is not great if you have to rely on potentially fraudulent numbers coming from a notoriously corrupt government.

Further Worldwide Analysis

So we see a modest uptick, thanks to China. But it’s not the only bright spot in an otherwise dimming star.

Whereas examining year-by-year changes we had started to see a pattern emerge of annual losses, we now see that shifting back into the black (or green, by the chart below.) Both 2019 and 2020 avoided losses and posted modest gains. Again, ISO has to take whatever good news it can.

The biggest gainers this year were China, Germany, Netherlands, Turkey, and Australia. Overall, these five nations accounted for 398,449 certificates, or nearly 44% of the overall total certificates issued in 2020.

But, yeah… Turkey is on that list. Turkey has become a major player in the fake ISO certificate space as well, led by another autocratic despot who also has a very keen reason to pretend his country might have better quality than it actually does. Turkey’s ISO scene is led ty TURKAK, an accreditation body that conveniently cannot seem to get a handle on the fake certs flooding out of that country, thus leading to the massive numbers we see this year. Turkey didn’t make my list of Five Top Hotspots for Unqualified ISO Certificates this year, but they did rank a Dishonorable Mention. If their inundation of fake certs is now affecting the ISO Survey data, then I may have to take a second look at them when I update that list next year.

Having said that, even Turkey is down from its all-time high of 13,217 certificates back in 2008.

The ISO editorial cover page also highlights that some nations exhibited “non-participation” in the data gathering, implying that’s the reason for their declines. The nations it name-shames are Belgium, Korea, Mexico, Ireland, and the Philippines. This shaming makes no damn sense, either, since Belgium showed a modest increase, and the decreases in Mexico and Korea were barely noticeable. Ireland and the Philippines do appear to raise red flags, with moderate losses.

Sector Analysis

This year’s analysis by industry sector worldwide is an absolute shit show. The data is really, really messed up from last year, making any year-over-year comparison completely pointless. I can’t be sure why the data is so bad, but it’s either very poor data gathering by ISO, or a complete cock-up by the folks at CBs and ABs who submit the data to begin with.

Here’s the latest data for the world:

And for the US alone:

So just why is it so terrible? The data jumps all over the place, pointing to raw reporting errors. In the US, for example, “aerospace” certificates dropped from 76 in 2019 to 52 in 2020. That makes no damn sense, since every AS9100 certificate issued simultaneously gets counted as an ISO 9001 cert, too. And there are literally thousands of companies certified to aerospace in the US alone.

The numbers for “sector not reported” jumped by over 200,000 in one year, so that means the CBs just threw their hands up and stopped gathering meaningful data.

India and East Asia

India lost certificates, dropping over 2,000 in the last year, which is surprising given the number of fake certificates coming out of that country. Japan continues to lose certs, dropping over 1,000 since 2019.

South Korea, another major ISO player in the region, lost 869 certificates, while Malaysia dropped 339.

Overall, ignoring China shows that Asia isn’t much enamored with the latest version of ISO 9001.

Vietnam, however, gained over 700 certificates in one year, a massive increase from country in the region (that isn’t China). They are still under their all-time high of 7,333 from 2009, however.

Taiwan — now called “Chinese Taipei” by ISO because Switzerland is spineless — gained a whipping 692 certs. But still down from their all-time high of 11,118 in 2013.

In the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region, Saudi Arabia lost over 200 certificates, losing about half the gains it had made the year prior. The countries of Qatar and UAE — two of the biggest sources of corrupt certificates on the planet today — are always worth monitoring. 2020 represented Qatar’s all-time high, hitting 887 certificates, but UAE lost over 200 certs. Here, however, we have to understand that the legitimate CBs are the ones issuing the fake certs, and those numbers then get rolled into ISO’s data, so nearly all of them are suspect.

USA Analysis

The US provides a very, very curious picture. We had predicted massive losses — more on that below — but they haven’t materialized. Between 2019 and 2020 the US roughly flatlined, losing 37 certificates to hit a total of 20,919. This is still less than half of US’ all-time high 44,883 of in 2006, so it’s grim news.

There is a growing increase in “unqualified ISO 9001 certificates” — meaning those issued by fully-accredited registrars but in open violation of the rules — within the US. So the actual number of “valid” certificates might be smaller, but there’s no way to know for sure. The IAF may be run by China, but it still operates out of the United States, and the US accreditation body ANAB files the IAF’s taxes every year, so … yeah. The US has burned through whatever trust and reputation it once held in the ISO scheme.

Comparing the US vs its North American neighbors looks like this, with Mexico dropping slightly (-739, for a total of 7002) and Canada essentially flatlined (+150 for a total of 4707):

The European Bellwethers

We always follow Italy, because it is a reliable leader in Europe’s ISO certs, alongside a handful of other “bellwether” European states: Germany, Switzerland, and France. Remember, Switzerland is ISO’s home court, too.

Italy’s numbers were flukey for a long time, but they dropped like mad in 2016 and have never fully recovered. All signs point to the data being real, though, and that Italian companies really were in love with ISO 9001 from about 2007 through 2016, and then just gave up on it.

United Kingdom

We can’t call the UK part of Europe anymore, so let’s look at it separately. For the first time in seven years, the home of Queen Elizabeth did not post a loss, having gained over 700 certificates instead, to reach a total of 25,995. This is still a far cry from that country’s all-time high of over 66,000 in the year 2000.

Belarus, Just Because

In what appears to be a pattern whereby dictator-led countries have remarkably suspect ISO figures, Belarus continues to take the cake with yet another staggering set of figures. Belarus gained over 600 certs in one year, to hit its all-time high of 6,890.

The Oxebridge Model Debunked?

While the world might be looking at the overall 2020 Survey news as largely shrugworthy, Oxebridge didn’t catch any such breaks. For the last few cycles, we had run math that showed the US dropping to below 10,000 certificates in short order. That now seems unlikely, thus debunking the “Oxebridge Model” math I had been using since about 2018.

That model factored in some variables such as the publication of a new standard, the COVID pandemic, and other factors, and estimated that the US would break the 10,000 barrier abound 2022/2023. Here’s the data, with the red line reflecting our original model, and the orange now adjusted based on the latest data:

This is good news for the remaining supporters of ISO 9001 within the US, and for ISO itself, as a dip into four-figure totals would have been an international scandal. While we can still expect next year’s Survey to show continued drop due to COVID, the rate of fall is far less severe than predicted.

So ISO gets a few moments to gloat against us, at least.

Winners and Losers

The nations with the highest number of ISO 9001 certificates in 2020 were as follows:

  1. China – 32,4621
  2. Italy – 91,493
  3. Germany – 49,349
  4. Japan – 32,287
  5. India – 32,236
  6. Spain – 29,814
  7. UK – 25,995
  8. France – 21,880
  9. USA – 20,919
  10. Brazil – 17,503

For the third year running, the top ten are the same, with only minor switching of pole positions.

The countries having lost the most certificates in 2019 are as follows:

  1. Italy – lost 4,319 certificates
  2. Czech Republic – lost 2,354 certificates
  3. India – lost 2,161 certificates
  4. Portugal – lost 1,389 certificates
  5. Poland – lost 1,241 certificates
  6. Japan – lost 1,043 certificates
  7. Spain – lost 987 certificates
  8. South Korea – lost 869 certificates
  9. Mexico – lost 739 certificates
  10. Philippines- lost 590 certificates

Overall Trend Analysis

So unless you’re in an autocratic dictatorship, or maybe Italy, the overall picture is kinda “meh.” No dramatic declines, and the only big winners mostly came from dubious countries with dubious governments pumping out dubious numbers. We really can’t take the data from China, Turkey, Vietnam, India, or Belarus seriously. But there exist enough other countries showing similar trends — however slight — that suggest ISO 9001 isn’t dead just yet, and that not all of ISO’s problems are due to the proliferation of fake certificates.

Here are a few of the prior Oxebridge analyses of previous ISO Surveys:


About Christopher Paris

Christopher Paris is the founder and VP Operations of Oxebridge. He has over 30 years' experience implementing ISO 9001 and AS9100 systems, and is a vocal advocate for the development and use of standards from the point of view of actual users. He is the author of Surviving ISO 9001 and Surviving AS9100. He reviews wines for the irreverent wine blog, Winepisser.


ISO 14001 Implementation