Southern powers begin shaping Sustainability Standards, by German Development Institute (DIE)

Bonn, 23 October 2017. International organisations based in Geneva have recently devoted great attention to voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) which claim to align production and consumption patterns with certain social, environmental and ethical specifications. At conferences last September organised by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the International Trade Centre, participants identified three drivers for the growing significance of VSS: First, consumer in advanced economies are increasingly looking for “clean” products, be that sustainably harvested wood or fair-traded products such as cocoa and coffee. Second, transnational corporations turn to VSS in order to mitigate reputational risks and differentiate their goods and services. Finally, public procurement in Europe and Southern countries like Brazil, China and India has begun to take sustainability criteria into account.

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The growing pro-active commitment of developing countries to sustainability standards is a welcome trend. Their efforts in aligning VSS to national priorities and in articulating Southern perspectives at the international level will enhance the contribution of such market-based instruments to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In the short run, the United Nations Forum for Sustainability Standards under the leadership of UNCTAD should facilitate a multi-stakeholder process for sharing experiences, joint knowledge creation and policy dialogue on VSS. In the long run, the international community needs to establish a coherent global framework for VSS which could overcome the present state of fragmentation and promote sustainable trade.


The German Development Institute is a partner institution of UNFSS on supporting developing countries the opportunities and challenges of Voluntary Sustainability Standards for economic development and attaining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

DIE Managing Global Governance Programme


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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