Research Frontiers on the Adoption, Impact and Effectiveness of Voluntary Sustainability Standards Fostering Sustainable Trade in the APEC Region Leveraging collaboration, transparency, and fairness to enhance VSS effectiveness in achieving sustainable development Better Trade for Sustainable Development: The Role of Voluntary Sustainability Standards Revitalizing the principal role of smallholder farmers as economic contributors

What are Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS)?

Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) are rules that producers, traders, manufacturers, retailers or service providers may be asked to follow so that the things they make, grow or do don’t hurt people and the environment.

These standards help keep workers healthy and safe, protect communities and land, and uphold human rights, as well as moderating the environmental impacts of production and consumption.


Better Trade for Sustainable Development: The role of voluntary sustainability standards

Publication August 2021
Download Full Paper

This report provides a comprehensive analysis of the potentials and constraints of VSS in making international trade more sustainable, in particular with regards to developing countries development opportunities. It investigates the means of maximizing VSS contribution to sustainable development and minimizing their risks. It also presents, based on the literature, the evidence we have on the economic, social and environmental impacts of VSS on the ground. Furthermore, it investigates the barriers to VSS uptake specifically in developing countries and proposes structural approaches that can be considered for enhancing the potential of VSS.

Caribbean Community (CARICOM) export potential to the European Union

Publication April 2021
Download Full Paper

This report assesses the Caribbean Community´s (CARICOM) agriculture (Herbs and Spices, Cocoa, Sugar Cane and Coconut) and aquaculture export potential to the European Union through the utilization of Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS).

The European Union is the second most important export market for CARICOM countries, after the United States of America. It is important to note that the impact of the European Union Directives is very significant for CARICOM since the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between them expressly refers to the concept of “sustainable development”.

SECO’s Engagement in Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) An evolving commitment to drive sustainability in Global Value Chains

Publication March 2021
Download Full Paper

A new Position Paper on Sustainability Standards highlights SECO’s role in driving sustainability impacts in global value chains through voluntary sustainability standards such as Fairtrade InternationalRainforest Alliance or Forest Stewardship Council™. Against the background of pressing global challenges linked to climate change, biodiversity loss, food insecurity and poverty, the paper elucidates new trends, analyzes the increasing interlinkages between government regulations and voluntary market-based standards and points at future priorities of SECO’s cooperation in this field.

Build-Back-Better from COVID-19 with the adoption of Sustainability Standards in Food Systems

Publication for 2021
Download Full Paper

The advent of the food system is an exemplary phenomenon that industrializes agriculture to secure food availability for the ever-growing population. However, food system activities have been causing negative impacts on the environment and the imbalanced global distribution of food causes food insecurity in many developing countries. These challenges have been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic. On the supply side of the food system, confinement measures and logistical disruptions have caused farm
production implications. On the demand side, food producers themselves have been severely impacted by further food insecurity and poverty.

Maximizing sustainable agri-food supply chain opportunities to redress COVID-19 in developing countries

Publication for 2020
Download Full Paper

The nationwide lockdowns due to the spread of COVID-19 has forced developed and developing countries to halt their economies. The economies of many developing countries are based on the exploitation of agriculture that are correspondingly important in relation to their economic development. Therefore, recovery strategies must be targeted to pursue goals that also reflects the quality of life, especially of the vulnerable stakeholders involved in agri-food supply chains in developing countries. This paper elucidates the long-standing causes of concern caused by agri-food supply chains and how these have been aggravated by COVID-19 in developing countries.

Transitioning to Strong Partnerships for the Sustainable Development Goals

Publication for 2020
Download Full Paper

Transitioning to Strong Partnerships for the Sustainable Development Goals is an edited volume dedicated to current developments regarding SDG 17 “Partnerships for the Goals”. This goal contains preconditions and systemic issues that will facilitate the success of the SDGs in general. In this volume, a chapter on VSS on Achieving the Global 2030 Agenda: What Role for Voluntary Sustainability Standards? is available here. 

Agricultural value chains and social and environmental impacts: Trends, challenges, and policy options

Publication for 2020
Download Full Paper

This paper provides key lessons and discusses policy implications on how markets can generate balanced economic objectives that also achieve desired nutritional, social, and environmental outcomes. It also highlights areas of future research to further understand the linkages between market forces shaping food value chains (FVCs) and non-economic outcomes.

Linking Voluntary Standards to Sustainable Development Goals

Publication for October 2020
Download Full Paper

With the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the United Nations has called on the private sector to contribute more to achieving the sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This report helps decision makers in the public and private sectors to understand where voluntary sustainability standards are best placed to contribute. It maps the linkages between these standards and each SDG goal, including its specific targets.

Scaling up VSS through Sustainable Public Procurement and Trade Policy

Publication for September 2020
Download Full Paper

The report explores the role of government as a vehicle to drive the adoption of Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS), which can be a powerful tool to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and other public sustainability commitments. The effectiveness of VSS to contribute to sustainable development could play a significant role by integrating VSS into public procurement and trade policy.

The Trade Impact of Voluntary Sustainability Standards: A review of empirical evidence

Publication for July 2020
Download Full Paper

Santiago Fernandez de Cordoba and Niematallah E.A. Elamin highlights the significance of transparency in terms of data availability for Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) given the current lack of evidence in this area. Find out the possible reasons behind the lack of studies in this field and way forward for future research.

COVID-19 and Protectionist Policies: a call for Sustainable Value Chains

Publication for 19 June 2020
Go to Bertelsmann Stiftung- Global Economic Dynamics page

Santiago Fernandez de Cordoba and Ruby Lambert speaks about the opportunity in the global coronavirus crisis to mitigate deglobalisation effects and create international trading system that works for all with Sustainable Value Chains.


The State of Sustainable Markets 2019: Statistics and Emerging Trends

Publication for 4 October 2019

Sustainability standards continue their growth across the world.

This fourth global report provides new insights into the evolution of certified agriculture and forestry. ITC has teamed up once again with the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture and the International Institute for Sustainable Development to provide data about 14 major sustainability standards for bananas, cocoa, coffee, cotton, oil palm, soybeans, sugarcane, tea and forestry products. This report helps shape decisions of policymakers, producers and businesses, working to address systemic labour and environmental challenges through certified sustainable production.

UNFSS Feature in ISO Focus

Publication for September – October 2019

UNFSS Coordinator, Santiago Fernandez de Cordoba speaks about standards as an important component of international trade. International standards can enable exporters from developing countries to unlock access to global value chains and alleviate poverty. For the world’s poorest countries – where trade plays an essential role in their economic development – so-called sustainability standards can be a powerful tool to drive growth and ensure inclusive development.

Trade policy and VSS Podcast

In this podcast, produced in partnership with the United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS), Vidya Rangan (Senior Manager for Impacts and Evidence, ISEAL) talks to UNCTAD Senior Economist and UNFSS Coordinator, Santiago Fernández de Córdoba, and Deputy Director of the Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies, Axel Marx, about the debates surrounding trade policy and VSS, particularly in the context of the of the 4th Flagship report published by UNFSS in September 2020. Visit –


ISEAL Credibility Principles consultation

The ISEAL Credibility Principles provide an international reference for defining the foundations of credible practices for sustainability standards. Stakeholder consultations on the ISEAL Credibility Principles revision are open until 31 July 2020.  Everyone with an interest in what credible practices look like for sustainability standards and similar systems, such as data-driven or landscape approaches, are encouraged to participate.


EdX MOOC “The UN Sustainable Development Goals: an Interdisciplinary Academic Introduction”

An interdisciplinary introduction to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)which looks at all SDGs, their progress and challenges. Find out more about the course here.


2nd International Convention on Sustainable Trade and Standards - Brazil, 16-18 September 2019

Jointly organized by InmetroFirjan, and the UNFSS , the 2nd International Convention on Sustainable Trade and Standards aims to advance multi-stakeholder dialogues on Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) as an avenue to improve the transparency of VSS and foster greater partnerships between trading partners towards sustainable global value chains and achieving the UN SDGs.

Watch Video Streaming 
Go to Events Page
Photo Gallery


(UNIDO) International Quality Infrastructure Forum - Belgium, 4th April 2019

The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), in cooperation with the African Union Commission (AUC), held the first ever International Quality Infrastructure (QI) Forum. It focused on the contribution of QI to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). The Forum also showcased how the private sector can contribute to the achievement of the SDGs through the adoption of sustainability standards.”

Download UNFSS mission notes here.

Public Awareness and Internal Meeting on Voluntary Sustainability Standard (VSS) in Indonesia, November 2018

The main objective of this event was to raise awareness on VSS within the country in order to establish a VSS framework, as well as to discuss the work plan for the Indonesia’s VSS National Platform launch with the support of UNFSS. The forum has concluded and agreed to shape a VSS National Platform – see Indonesia’s National Platform trajectories.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Roundtable Circular Economy – Fostering Circularity in Food Trade
Register Here
16 November 2021, 13hr-15hr (CET)

Trade for Sustainable Development (T4SD) Forum 2021
Register Here
27-28 September 2021

Better Trade for Sustainable Development: Role of Voluntary Sustainability Standards
Register Here
30 August 2021
2:00pm – 3:00pm CET

APEC Stakeholder Awareness on Voluntary Sustainability Standards Workshop: Role and Impact of VSS on Trade in APEC Region

14-16 September 2021
2:30pm – 5:00pm CET

What’s behind the deal? Innovative trade tools to increase the sustainability and transparency of global value chains
Register Here
26 April 2021
2:00pm – 3:30pm CET

2021 International Women´s Day special – Applying Gender Lens to Sustainability Standards and Certification Systems for International Trade
Register Here
8 March 2021
2:00pm – 4:00pm CET


Codex Alimentarius International Food Standards

The C O D E X  A L I M E N T A R I U S international food standards, guidelines and codes of practice contribute to the safety, quality and fairness of this international food trade. Consumers can trust the safety and quality of the food products they buy and importers can trust that the food they ordered will be in accordance with their specifications.

Go to Codex IFS Standards

FAO Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture systems (SAFA)

The free of charge SAFA Tool (version 2.2.40) is created by FAO to undertake sustainability assessment, as described in the SAFA Guidelines (version 3.0). The SAFA Tool guides users through the four SAFA assessment steps: “Mapping”, “Contextualization”, “Indicators” and “Reporting”. The indicators used are those offered in the Guidelines’ complement: SAFA Indicators.

Go to SAFA Tool

FAO Sustainable Food Value Chains Knowledge Platform

This global knowledge platform provides a user-friendly gateway to practical guidance and information on the development of Sustainable Food Value Chains (SFVC). SFVC development is a market-oriented and systems-based approach for measuring, analysing and improving the performance of food value chains (FVCs) in ways that help ensure their economic, social and environmental sustainability. An extensive vocabulary of technical terms developed specifically for SFVCs allows refined searches of the platform’s comprehensive databases. Underpinning the platform is a community of members, which facilitates networking and the exchange of ideas among policy-makers, project designers, field practitioners and other people working on topics related to SFVCs.

Go to SFVC Platform

One Planet Network

The One Planet network has formed to implement the 10-Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production, which supports the global shift to SCP and the achievement of SDG 12. This platform is where the lead organisations of each programme can coordinate their efforts, to showcase what the programme is doing, who is taking part, and how interested stakeholders can engage.

Go to One Planet

ITC Sustainability Map

A platform that provides concrete and scalable tools, technical assistance and advisory services for every stage of the value chain, from micro, small and medium sized enterprises in developing countries to retailers and brands in developed markets

Go to Sustainability Map

UNCTAD Fostering Green Exports through VSS

The UNCTAD’s Project on “Fostering green exports through Voluntary Sustainability Standards” aims to help developing countries build their capacity to use VSS as a tool to achieve the win-win-win outcomes, i.e.:

  • Inclusive economic growth though fostering green exports
  • Production practices that are complementary to environmental protection
  • Business environment that is complementary to better social development

An Assessment Toolkit will be launching in 2020.
Read more about the Assessment Toolkit

Visit Project Page

UNCTAD Non-Tariff Measures Database

Non-tariff measures (NTMs) are policy measures other than tariffs that can potentially have an economic effect on international trade in goods. They are increasingly shaping trade, influencing who trades what and how much. For exporters, importers and policymakers, NTMs represent a major challenge. Though many NTMs aim primarily at protecting public health or the environment, they also substantially affect trade through information, compliance and procedural costs.

Go to NTMs Database

UNCTAD BioTrade Initiative

Since its launch by UNCTAD in 1996, the BioTrade Initiative has been promoting sustainable BioTrade in support of the objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Initiative has developed a unique portfolio of regional and country programmes.

UNCTAD is currently implementing the Global BioTrade Programme: Linking trade, biodiversity and sustainable development with the support of the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs SECO.

Visit Project Page

United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS)

UNFSS addresses the sustainable development value of Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) by pooling resources, synchronizing efforts, and ensuring policy coherence, coordination and collaboration among United Nations agencies.

The Forum is coordinated by a Steering Committee of five United Nations agencies:

   The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

   The International Trade Centre (ITC)

   The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)

   United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment)

   The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)

UNFSS Flagship Publication Reports

UNFSS publishes a Flagship report biennially on trending topics that are important to the evolution of Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS). These reports are pivotal tools for all stakeholders from the public and private sectors to gain substantial information through a transparent network.

Visit Flagship Publication Page

4th Flagship Report: “Scaling up VSS through Sustainable Public Procurement and Trade Policy”

Published: September 2020
The report explores the role of government as a vehicle to drive the adoption of Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS), which can be a powerful tool to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and other public sustainability commitments. The effectiveness of VSS to contribute to sustainable development could play a significant role by integrating VSS into public procurement and trade policy.


National Multi-Stakeholder Platforms

We’ve helped several emerging countries  to develop multi-stakeholder platforms for Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS). These national initiatives, created and shared by stakeholders under each country’s designated coordinating body, reflect local priorities. They are organized and structured in a transparent, inclusive and demand-driven way.


The African Continental platform will serve as a mechanism to strengthen the capacities of public and private entities in Africa in terms of sustainability, being an initiative that will contribute to the African Strategy for the promotion of sustainable consumption and production of goods and services as well as implementation of the SDGs.


The Colombian National Platform is coordinated by the Colombian Institute of Technical Standards and Certification (ICONTEC), the only Standardization Body in Colombia and advisor to the national government, representative for Colombia to the international standardization bodies such as ISO, IEC, COPANT and support of the national government in the negotiating groups for the Andean Community, FTAA among others.


The Brazilian National Platform was launched in 2017 under the Brazilian National Institute of Metrology, Quality and Technology (INMETRO), aiming to be the central figure for discussions surrounding VSS and raise awareness of the stakeholder affected by VSS.


The India National Platform on Private Sustainability Standards has been initiated under the Secretarial oversight of Quality Council of India (QCI) to facilitate dialogue between core public and private stakeholders on how to maximize the sustainable development benefits and market access opportunities of private sustainability standards.


The Chinese National Platform on Voluntary Sustainability Standards has been initiated under the auspices of the Standardization Administration of the People’s Republic of China (SAC), the China Association for Standardization (CAS), and the General Administration for Quality Standardization, Inspection and Quarantine of the People’s Republic of China (AQSIQ) to promote the development of VSS in China.


The Mexican Platform was launched in April 2018 as a result of the joint collaboration with the Mexican Government, the UNFSS and the German Institute for Development Managing Global Governance program.

Our Current Projects

These are projects from our member agencies including FAO, ITC, UNCTAD, UN Environment and UNIDO.




UN Environment


Our Member Agencies