Accreditation vs Certification: What's the Difference?

The world of conformity assessment has its own specialized jargon that can make understanding requirements challenging, especially to organizations who are pursuing accreditation for the first time. We find that our customers often try to find information on ISO/IEC 17025 certification, only to learn that what they actually need is ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation, or may research product registration, but ultimately learn that they needed product certification. In ordinary speech, the words accreditation, certification, and registration are often used interchangeably, but the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has specific definitions for these terms that differ somewhat from their everyday use.

Accreditation is a procedure by which an authoritative body gives formal recognition that a conformity assessment body (CAB) fulfills specified requirements and is competent to carry out specific tasks. An organization seeking accreditation is the “conformity assessment body,” and is often a testing laboratory, the “authoritative body” is an organization in their country or region authorized to grant this accreditation. Who exactly is recognized to grant accreditation in a given region will vary. The most important difference between accreditation and registration is that accreditation confirms the competency of the organization, rather than affirming the organization’s quality management system. Because the accreditation process examines the human element of an organization, it’s particularly important in technical fields where specific competencies will have an impact on the product or service provided.

The word “registration” is used to indicate that a product, process, service, person, or body demonstrates the characteristics necessary to be included on a specific publicly available list. Registration is sometimes also called certification, especially in Europe, which adds to the confusion. In our training courses, we most often talk about quality system registration (or certification). To receive it, an organization must have a quality system that has been assessed as compliant with the requirements of a standard like ISO 9001. Any organization can be examined for this compliance, but this only means that its quality system meets requirements. It does not directly check or attest to the organization's output, which means the output's quality can vary depending on the design specifications. Thus, it is difficult to know how one producer's output compares with another. Many different organizations, from international standardization bodies to local industry groups, have criteria for registering products, services, or companies.

Certification is a written assurance that a product, process, or service conforms to specified requirements. For example: a product, such as a freezer or refrigerator, may be certified by Energy Star based on their specific requirements for that category of products. Organizations may also have an individual process or system – like a QMS – certified to indicate that it meets specific requirements. Many of the organizations that certify products are accredited against another ISO standard called ISO/IEC 17065:2012 “Conformity assessment — Requirements for bodies certifying products, processes, and services”.  Some of the confusion between registration, accreditation, and certification comes from the fact that many organizations issue a document called a “certificate of accreditation” or a “certificate of registration,” but a “certificate of accreditation” to ISO/IEC 17025, for example, indicates that the organization has ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation, not ISO/IEC 17025 certification.

If you’re not certain what form of conformity assessment activity, be it registration, certification, or accreditation would be most applicable to your business, contact the experts at AWPT. We can provide insight on standards applicable to your industry or region. If you know what standard you need information on, but aren’t sure where to find it, we offer courses on a variety of different ISO standards, including self-directed e-learning.