Establishing the VSS Academic Advisory Council

Reflecting to the UNFSS research element cornerstone, the Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) Academic Advisory Council (AAC) (hereinafter “AAC”), composed of renowned academic experts from across the globe, has been established to function as a think-tank that brings together a wide variety of academic backgrounds, ranging from public international law, global governance, international political economy, economics and public management, to human rights and sustainability studies. This type of multidisciplinary approach not only reflects the implicit acknowledgement of the complexity and multi-faceted nature of analysing VSS effectiveness and the challenges associated therewith, it also offers researchers from different thematic and methodological schools a chance to collaborate with, and learn from one another. Such collaboration in turn, allows the academics involved to create a more comprehensive understanding, a fuller picture of their research topics around the governance of VSS systems.

UNFSS, as an initiative of five United Nations agencies – FAO, UNIDO, ITC, UN Environment and UNCTAD, embodies a neutral and impartial platform for its constituencies to gain substantial and adequate knowledge. The AAC is thus, a new addition to the UNFSS´s key milestone with a clear interest to appropriately circulate academic and evidence-based studies aligned to the mandate of UNFSS.

The AAC is designed to pursue the following scientific objectiveunderstand the effectiveness of VSS and the determinants of effectiveness. Currently, different disciplines approach questions related to the effectiveness of VSS from different theoretical perspectives and focus on different dimensions of effectiveness. The AAC’s objective is to bring these different perspectives into one overarching network on the effectiveness of VSS, thus contributing to a comprehensive understanding of VSS effectiveness. 

To learn more about the AAC, please visit

The AAC Objectives

The VSS Academic Advisory Council will draw upon its significant research expertise in VSS to develop a ‘framework on effectiveness’ that will integrate the disparate existing research on VSS and elucidate key concepts, thereby creating a state-of-the-art framework that can be used as the foremost academic resource on VSS and as a springboard for further research.

To do so, this establishment will bring together a network of prominent international scholars and research centres to catalogue existing work and develop a common terminology for the research into and assessment of the effectiveness of VSS, ultimately bringing coherence to a currently fragmented field and allowing for a more productive academic debate. The VSS Academic Advisory Council will develop a set of recommendations for economically beneficial and inclusive policies and development programs based on best practices, taking into consideration developing countries’ individual economic, social and environmental concerns.

Against this background, the objectives of the VSS Academic Advisory Council includes:

  1. Establishing a network of experts on VSS, with researchers, universities and research centres
  2. Foster pioneering research and academic debate in this field via knowledge exchange and policy dialogues
  3. Bring together for the first time the divergent strands of research on VSS while widening its engagement in the fields of sustainable development, trade policy, public governance, international political economy, etc.
  4. Provide inputs to the empirical and theoretical researches and develop a common foundation upon which further research can be conducted

The AAC Inception Meeting

The inception meeting which will be held on 29 April 2020 at the Palais des Nations – Geneva (by invitation only), will serve as a collective input among the selected academic experts to the 4th UNFSS Flagship Report, which will be published in fall this year. This Flagship report will be mutually reinforcing and will ensure the results of the research are accessible to a broad base of stakeholders by translating the academic research into policy documents with concrete suggestions and best practices.

A careful selection of renowned academic experts will be participating in this AAC inception meeting and will be discussing the issues around three key themes:

  1. Developments in the field of VSS: Stagnation or Consolidation, Compliance or Learning – This session discusses the developments of VSS on two levels. First on the level of all VSS with a focus on the reasons and possible implications of the stagnation on the number of VSS in recent years. Second, on the development in governance practices of specific VSS by emphasizing the current developments in VSS governance models that interact more closely with standard-takers and what can be expected of them. 
  2. Impact and effectiveness of VSS in achieving the triple bottom line of sustainability – social, economy and environment  – The effectiveness of VSS is determined by the impact they generate on key sustainability metrics and their degree of adoption. This session discusses the conditions under which VSS generate the most significant impacts. It also converses the current adoption dynamics of VSS and how these different types of dynamics are communicated.  
  3. VSS in Public Policy Possibilities and Constraints – VSS are increasingly integrated in different types of public policy including measures for export promotion, import restrictions, public procurement, etc. This session discusses the possibilities and constraints of integrating VSS in public policy based on current studies and insights. The panel aims to answer the following questions: What functions do VSS perform in the regulatory process (agenda-setting, implementation, monitoring and enforcement)? How do or can they complement, substitute or possibly antagonize public policies? And what are the strengths and weakness, threats and opportunities?  

In addition to this meeting, a report will be published in the AAC website to highlight the results derived from the discussions, which will function as a state of play on the field of VSS. This report will gather the most important pioneering research presented at the meeting and will thereby be an important resource for researches, practitioners and policymakers on the most innovative and forward-looking research on VSS and its effectiveness.

Questions? Please direct them to 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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