4th Flagship Launch: Driving sustainability through sustainable public procurement and trade policy

While COVID-19 threatens to reverse the decade-long progress on the fight against poverty, the pandemic sharply focuses the world’s attention on health concerns, including human health, environmental health and planetary health. In this respect, Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) have been recognised as potentially transformative tools for governments and businesses to realise their sustainability commitments. The 4th Flagship responds directly to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres call for climate-related and human rights actions to shape the recovery from COVID-19 and help developing countries achieve the SDGs.

This report thus, analyses how VSS are (and can be) integrated into Sustainable Public Procurement (SPP) and trade policy respectively. The concept of Sustainable Public Procurement (SPP) is used to refer to social- and environmental-friendly public procurement policies. The research explores some of the arguments for and against such integration. Three main research questions were addressed.  

  • What are the determinants of VSS adoption at country level?
  • How can public procurement and trade policy serve to increase VSS uptake, and how do they contribute to the effectiveness of VSS?
  • What are the key considerations and implications of VSS integration into SPP and trade policy?

Public procurement represents, on average, 12 % of GDP in the OECD countries, and up to 30 % of GDP in developing countries. The magnitude of government spending highlights the potential of public procurement as a driver of VSS uptake and its power to nudge markets towards higher standards of sustainability. The structural demand for sustainably produced products from the government can enhance the competitiveness of sustainable products, further boosting the business case for VSS. This prompts the private sector to further embrace socio- and eco-minded products and services, especially after being exposed to, for a few years now, a systematic increase of “sustainable” policies that shape business and consumer’s behaviour.

The report begins with key global trends in VSS adoption and dives into country-level adoption rankings and factors, which include consumer demand, business demand, as well as government demand for VSS. Chapter 2 explores the role of public procurement in increasing VSS uptake, given the large share of government spending of a country’s GDP. It is here where the concept of SPP is introduced and country case-studies are featured. Building on the 3rd Flagship study on the relationship between VSS and global trade issues, chapter 3 explored further how VSS can be integrated into trade policy instruments, such as free trade agreements (FTAs), preferential trade agreements (PTAs), market access, export promotion. Lastly, some key considerations for further integrating VSS in SPP and trade policy are discussed. These include capacity issues within VSS systems, the possible increase in the number of VSS, the implications for recognition systems, the risk of over-certification, and possible distributional effects.  

About the UNFSS Flagship Series

In order to tackle the challenges that VSS posed on developing countries, UNFSS promotes proactive approaches to national policy and information exchanges on VSS, which enables developing countries not only to minimize potential costs associated with adjustment to VSS, but also to maximize related economic, social and environmental benefits.

UNFSS publishes a twice-yearly flagship report on diverse topics to do with Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS), our mission and activities, for our stakeholders from the public and private sectors. The first volume of the Flagship Report launched in 2013 was the interplay of VSS and public governance with a mapping exercise of key priority topics and initiatives related to VSS, raising questions and outlining the complexity of this thematic area. The 2016 Flagship Report seeks to further dissect the interplay between VSS and public governance processes by striving to answer the question “what are the optimal dynamics between VSS and public policy processes to ensure sustainability objectives are most efficiently met”. The 2018 Flagship Report identifies the resemblance of VSS and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Using the Sustainability Map database which covers 241 VSS applicable to more than 80 sectors and 180 countries, the direct channel through which VSS can contribute to sustainable development can be measured by the empirical links between VSS and the SDGs.

The full flagship publication can be found at: https://unfss.org/home/flagship-publication/

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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