Assessing the Perception and Willingness towards VSS

The considerable diversity of priorities associated with the uptake of Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) have captured significant interests for researchers to analyze the drivers that stimulated stakeholders to be certified (or not). Given the unclear distribution of benefits resulting from these sustainability certifications, smallholder farmers are striking economic actors in the value chains that have expressed unprecedented concerns. This is not to say that they do not see the value of adapting sustainability measures into their operations, but rather concerns that are pertinent to their return of investments from their time, effort and finances they have to commit to throughout the certification process. On the one hand, sustainable and organic labels are perceived as tools to distinguish their products being associated with environmental and social causes, while on the other hand, there also exist crops that are cultivated organically ‘by default’ that would still require investments to obtain labels that are perceived to put them in a better position to reach wider and more lucrative markets. Even though labels, in both cases are perceived to have an added value, it is however crucial to also capture the degree of willingness to adopt VSS, especially to steer policy dialogues and formulate support mechanisms.

Hence, under the UNCTAD project on ‘Fostering the Development of Green Exports through VSS‘, the forthcoming launch of the VSS Perception Assessment Toolkit has been designed to measure the beliefs, opinions, outlooks and perceptions of actors and stakeholders within the specific value chains on how and why they choose to be certified (or not). In a nutshell, the Toolkit provides a simple and easy means to identify VSS-related challenges and opportunities specific to different actors within a value chain. It is mainly used to conduct research studies on VSS from a country-level context, based on selected sectors that are normally pertinent to that of their national interest. It provides an initial contribution to envisage principal perceptions behind the adoption of VSS among smallholders and other actors in the value chain. The visualization from the constellation of perceptions derived from the study will not only identify power and perception asymmetries but also contribute to the detection of areas where policy could play the forefront role in mitigating the issues.

As part of the development of the Toolkit, a consultative expert-meeting took place last March 2019 with participants from ITC, FiBL, IISD, UN Environment, Overseas Development Institute as well as FairTrade Max Havelaar, all of which had significant contributions that are essential to the improvements of the Toolkit.

Can the Perception Assessment Toolkit drive a more harmonized approach for National Platforms and National Initiatives towards Green Exports?

Tried and Tested – The Perception Assessment Toolkit was piloted in three beneficiary countries, Lao PDR, Philippines and Vanuatu. UNCTAD carried out fact-finding missions and organized start-up workshops in these countries to identify promising sustainable product sectors based on country-specific results; identify national and global market opportunities; identify barriers to production and export; and select sectors and products as the focus of further development. These activities enable the identification of country-specific strategies and actions towards achieving economic growth in order to draft policy recommendations and national action plans around green exports.

Takeaways – The Philippines has extensive experience with VSS when promoting the country’s key exports such as coconut oil, bananas, coffee and fresh or processed pineapples. The study was based on the coconut oil sector. Gathering information on these experiences can help producers and businesses across different sectors and the government policymakers to holistically assess the country’s strategies towards green exports growth and sustainable development. Vanuatu has identified the targeted green export product – copra/coconuts. The country now aims to materialize the study to achieve green exports growth in this sector. Lao PDR has developed commercial linkages between local smallholder organic farmers and the country’s tourism industry, and is now interested in tapping into the rapidly-growing demand for their organically produced coffee in regional and international markets.

UNFSS and Green Exports The trajectory of Green Exports is inclined not only towards sustainable cultivation and production methods, but also generate less negative and potentially more positive externalities in terms of socio-economic and environmental development of the local community. The development of this Assessment Toolkit adds a significant value for national platforms and initiatives towards a systematic and more harmonized approach, thereby sharing best practices among its networks and collectively strengthen the capacity of smallholder farmers and producers in their respective countries to uphold VSS as a way to improve their social well-being as well as the environment they are in.

To learn more, contact Ruby Lambert.

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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