HIGH levels of international trade have pushed the issues of quality and quality assurance programmes to the forefront. First, European and United States-based companies have realised poor quality costs money. Surveys have shown the ''cost'' of poor quality can be between 10 and 25 per cent of the gross revenue of individual firms. This results in lower profits for the manufacturer and/or higher costs to its client, causing businesses to be less competitive. Japanese businesses have become more competitive because of the positive effects of their quality methods. These methods include ''quality circles'' in management, ''just-in-time'' logistics, and ''zero-defect'' manufacturing policies. The European Community has focused much energy on developing legislative directives on product quality standards and on product liability requirements. Governments in Europe, the US and other countries, including many in Asia, have formally adopted the ISO 9000 series of standards, which focuses on the quality of management systems. Food and drug administration codes and product liability laws (which firmly place liability in the country of purchase) have been widely propagated. Businesses are realising the cost of developing effective quality assurance systems, by which they gain internationally recognised quality assurance certification, is not merely another (or even an unjustified) business expense, but a commercial necessity. Governments are becoming aware of how the quality of their nations' products and the success of their foreign trade programmes are inter-linked. For example, the promulgation of the ISO 9000 standards in China by China's State Bureau of Technical Supervision reflects its progressive policy on the issue of quality. In countries with more experience of ISO 9000-type standards, companies which have successfully implemented them have achieved significant savings in both production and management costs. For example, in Britain's food industry, studies have shown that companies with ISO 9000 certification (or BS 5750 certification as it is identified), have achieved savings of between five and 15 per cent, and sometimes 20 per cent. The ISO 9000 series of standards is the most important trend in the evolution of modern economies, and represents the key to economic success in the future. These standards do not restrict producers because they do not define the criteria of specific enterprise quality systems. They merely define the topics which have to be considered, together with definitions of what is expected, within each section (or category) of quality management and quality assurance activity. What the standards do is compel the producer to define and justify himself to assess his products. He must then prove full compliance with the standards he has set. No compliance means no certification. Industries worldwide are becoming aware of the importance of quality assurance and total quality management. Purchasers, particularly ''bulk'' buyers, are looking for suppliers who can give them the assurances they need to meet their customers' demands. In terms of cost control, product liability and competitiveness, quality is a long-term driving force which must take priority over short-term cost-saving measures. It is clear that while a company with well-developed quality assurance procedures cannotabsolutely ensure ''zero-defects'', ISO 9000 certification provides the best internationally available means for generating confidence and exercising ''due diligence''. With more sophisticated market demands, the integration of company functions, from design to production to marketing to servicing, into a single quality assurance system, is needed. For example, a customer will be unhappy if you can make a ''first class'' product, but fail on delivery time, or are careless with packaging. This growing trend is reflected by the companies who have already received ISO 9000 certification. It is time Hongkong's industry speeded its acceptance of the logic and necessity of ISO 9000 certification, especially if it is to remain competitive. Jean-Marie Dunand is general manager of SGS Hongkong. The territory's main trading partners will no longer be willing to accept goods or services that may be perceived as below standard - and that means fully-fledged ISO 9000 certification.