Linking Voluntary Standards to Sustainable Development Goals

Linking Voluntary Standards to Sustainable Development Goals” is a study successfully developed jointly by the International Trade Center (ITC), the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the European University Institute, the University of Amsterdam, and the German Development Institute, to illustrate the overlaps between voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

VSS are currently at the centre of the business approaches towards sustainability. Going beyond minimum legal standards established by governments, VSS focus on reducing adverse environmental and social effects and responding to the demands of various stakeholders, including consumers. However, there are currently no systematic ways to map the VSS criteria to the SDG targets. Thus, making it difficult for consumers, implementers and other actors to understand which SDG is being referenced in the VSS.

For the first time, this publication has systematically analyses interlinkages between 232 VSS and the 17 SDGs and their targets. The result indicates that the three SDGs most widely covered by VSS are SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) and SDG 2 (Zero Hunger). There are more than 200 VSS linked with each of these goals. The standards are also relevant for other SDGs, with potential to enhance this relevance. These include SDG 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions), SDG 15 (Life on Land), SDG 5 (Gender Equality), SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure), SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy) and SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities).

The study also takes a closer look at the geographical and sectoral distribution of VSS and finds that VSS relevant to the SDGs are widely available among countries and economic sectors. The number of linked voluntary standards is highest in North America and Western Europe. Also, agriculture is the sector most covered by voluntary standards, by a significant margin.

There is significant potential to create further institutional complementarities between VSS and SDGs. Hence, VSS could contribute to the achievement of the SDGs by complementing the role of governments and international organizations.

“This innovative research provides a clear picture of how businesses can work towards SDG targets by adopting voluntary sustainability standards,” said Pamela Coke-Hamilton, ITC Executive Director, and Mukhisa Kituyi, UNCTAD Secretary-General, in an introduction to the report.

“We trust that the findings in the report will be a useful resource for standard-setting organizations, policymakers, suppliers and lead firms – as they strive to bring together the public and private sectors and promote sustainable, responsible supply chains in pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals,” they added.

In short, this report shows there is a large number of relevant VSS available for policy makers aiming to create synergies in the SDGs related areas. This is of a great value especially for developing countries in their attempt to move towards a sustainable future, better understand the SDGs and the implications of VSS.

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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.