UNFSS at the WTO Public Forum 2014

The UNFSS participated in a session of the WTO Public Forum 2014 under the topic “Voluntary Sustainability Standards: Building Equity in and Access to Sustainable Markets” on 3 October 2014 at the WTO headquarters, Geneva. The session was hosted by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and the State of Sustainability Initiatives (SSI). Panelists included representatives from the UNFSS, the Sustainable Commodity Assistance Network (SCAN), Smallholders’ Access to Markets for Certified Sustainable Products (SAMCERT) and the Finance Alliance for Sustainable Trade (FAST).

The general theme of this years’ WTO Public Forum being “Why trade matters to everyone” with a focus on Africa, this session dealt with the rising importance of voluntary (private) sustainability standards (VSS) in international trade and development. More specifically, there was discussion on how emerging and developing economies could more effectively participate in production and supply of compliant products so as to follow a more sustainable development path, and how to make these processes more equitable and inclusive.

In the opening statement, Frank Grothaus of the UNFSS Support Team outlined the evolution of VSS as tools in the international trading system, opportunities and challenges related to VSS as well as implications from a trade and development perspective. This was followed by a presentation by David Cuming (SAMCERT, and representing IISD) on the main findings of the State of Sustainability Initiatives (SSI) Review 2014, which illustrates the remarkable, however geographically unequally distributed growth of standard-compliant production and the dynamic growth of sales across major sustainability initiatives in ten key commodities compared to conventional production. Other findings of the report are that while VSS have improved the participation of developing country stakeholders in supply chain decision-making, there is a persistent oversupply of certified products triggering pressure on prices and market access challenges (also see here for more information on the SSI Review).

The UNFSS presentation focused on the issue of balancing market access and development impacts of VSS. Though VSS have rapidly expanded over the last two decades and have created new market opportunities for those producers who were able to fulfill the requirements of these new dynamic markets and entered associated international supply chains, they have left a large number of smallholders in more remote regions or countries with weaker infrastructure behind. Besides, according to the emergent critical mass of impact assessment research so far many of these standards have not performed well in terms of raising smallholder income and some other developmental impacts, such as gender equality. Several challenges of up-scaling the impact of VSS were explained and it was argued that reliance on market mechanisms alone was unlikely to achieve sustainable sector or market transformation and broad-based developmental effects. In this context, the importance of a pro-active role of developing country governments in the area of VSS was stressed and potential areas for policy intervention for overcoming capacity, institutional, policy and consultation gaps were described.

Afterwards, in addition to a presentation providing an overview of the objectives, structure and approach of the UNFSS, the different specialized programs in the area of sustainable development and sustainable agriculture that aim at supporting smallholders were introduced in more detail: FAST which facilitates access to finance was presented by Ragnar Wetterblad, SCAN which provides capacity-building and training was presented by Christopher Wunderlich, and SAMCERT which assists rural producers in utilizing sustainable certification programmes to improve their economic, environmental and social situation was presented by David Cuming (for more information see the presentations provided via the links below). Some Africa-related case studies were also referred to.

Overall, the contributions of the panelists pointed to the need to embed VSS in a coherent development policy and a complementary enabling environment, if VSS are to reach market shares much greater than the present level and realize their full developmental and market-access potential. Elements of such an environment are supportive and strategic policy approaches and a pro-active role of developing country governments conducive to VSS mainstreaming, development of institutional and capacity-building frameworks, technical assistance and finance as well as multi-stakeholder cooperation.

For more information on this session, please visit the WTO website.

Downloads / presentations:

UNFSS, SSI and SCAN presentations

SAMCERT presentation

FAST Presentation



The United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS) is a joint initiative of 5 UN Agencies (FAO, ITC, UNCTAD, UN Environment and UNIDO) that seeks to address these challenges. It is a demand-driven forum for intergovernmental actors to communicate among each other and engage with key target groups (producers, traders, consumers, standard-setters, certification-bodies, trade diplomats, relevant NGOs and researchers) to address their information needs and influence concerned stakeholders. It aims to provide impartial information, analysis, and discussions on VSS and their potential contribution to facilitate market access, strengthen public goods and achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most importantly, the UNFSS focuses on potential trade or development obstacles VSS may create, with particular emphasis on their impact on SMEs and less developed countries.

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