2021 International Women’s Day Feature

Applying Gender Lens on Sustainability Standards and Certification Systems for International Trade

Virtual Webinar

8 March 2021, 2:00pm – 3:45pm (CET)




14:00 – 14:10

Opening by Santiago Fernandez de Cordoba, Senior Economist and UNFSS Coordinator, UNCTAD

14:10 – 14:20

Setting-the-Scene by Blessing Irabor, President, Organization for Women in International Trade (OWIT) Nigeria

14:20 – 15:05

Impulse Givers:

  • Kathleen Sexsmith, Assistant Professor, Gender Expert, International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)
  • Dr. Hermogene Nsengimana, Secretary General, African Organization for Standardization (ARSO)
  • Elisabeth Tuerk, Director, Economic Cooperation and Trade, United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)
  • Noelia Garcia Nebra, Programme Manager, Gender Action, International Organization for Standardization (ISO)
  • Vidya Rangan, Senior Manager, Impacts and Evidence, ISEAL

Moderated by Siti Rubiah Lambert, Sustainability Expert, UNFSS Secretariat, UNCTAD

15:05 – 15:35

Intervention and Q&A

Intervenors (15 minutes):

  • John Isemede, Former Director General and CEO of APEX Chamber of Commerce, Nigeria
  • Hilary Barry, Secretary General-CEO of LadyAgri Impact Investment Hub
  • Titi Ojo, Exporter Voices Lead at the Policy Development Facility Bridge program of UKAID, SME Development Expert and Acting Executive Secretary of the Network of Practicing Non-Oil Exporters of Nigeria (NPNEN)
15:35 – 15:45

Concluding Remarks by

  • Dominika Dor, Industrial Development, Gender Focal Point, United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)
  • Camelia Mazard, President, Organization of Women in International Trade (OWIT) International




Women account for 40% or more of the total labour force in many countries in 2019[1] and at least 33% of women make up the exporting workforce compared to 24% of non-exporting workforce in developing countries[2]. International trade has in fact created better jobs for women – the probability of women being in the informal sector reduced from 20% in sectors with low levels of exports to 13% in sectors with high levels of exports, providing them with opportunities for benefits, training and job security.

However, in the credit market, women entrepreneurs in developing countries tend to self-select out of the credit market because of their low perceived creditworthiness such as low financial literacy, risk aversion and fear of failure. These women would not apply for loans or lines of credit because they were often discouraged by the societal perception that their application would automatically be denied.

Furthermore, women engaged in cross-border trade often face a number of challenges, including time and skill constraints (women also spend more time performing unpaid work such as childcare and housework), burdensome custom requirements, as well as discriminatory and non-transparent non-tariff measures. Non-tariff measures raise compliance costs associated with procedures, regulations, and standards and certifications, which can be particularly burdensome for small enterprises with little experience in trade – as is the case for many women-owned firms. These challenges are a global problem that affects women disproportionately and can limit opportunities for women traders.


Sustainability Standards

Sustainability Standards are special rules that guarantee the products you buy do not hurt the environment and the people that produced them. It has emerged as new tools to address key sustainability challenges such as biodiversity, climate change and human rights. The UNFSS described Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) as, “specifying requirements that producers, traders, manufacturers, retailers or service providers may be asked to meet, relating to a wide rage of sustainability metrics, including respect for basic human rights, worker health and safety, the environmental impacts of production, community relations, land use planning and others”. Although these standards are voluntary by nature, they have become a market reality and non-compliance can lead to the exclusion of producers from global value chains and exports, in general.

Sustainability standards also generates gender-sensitive assurances in the operational procedures and norms established by companies to drive systemic changes for women in supply chains and improve their overall working conditions. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), voluntary sustainability standards can potentially contribute to higher incomes for women in agriculture and women can also receive financial support provided through certification. This includes pre-financing or premiums that can contribute to women´s ability to access productive inputs and credit. When producer organizations support these measures, it can enhance women´s rights to productive agriculture resources.


The Dialogue

The need to raise global awareness about leveraging sustainability standards for gender equality and women´s empowerment should be compounded with practical questions such as:

  • What are the opportunities to close the persistent gender gap in access to finance for women-owned businesses in developing countries?
  • Do sustainability standards address the issues faced by women entrepreneurs and traders?
  • How do we ensure that the certification system is gender responsive?
  • What infrastructure is needed to ensure these are possible?

With these questions in mind, the objective of this dialogue is:

  • to raise global awareness on the issues most women entrepreneurs and exporters face with regards to sustainability standards. Even if they can see the benefits of complying to these standards, the issue they are often faced with are the lacking means of financial, capacity and institutional support
  • to put forward policy recommendations at national level on ways to facilitate a better infrastructure that eases women entrepreneurs to certify their products
  • to discuss differentiated impacts of standards compliance for women in international trade, and its best practices to foster gender equality and women empowerment

This is a call for a collective effort to increase women´s capacity to engage in international trade

The extent to which women can take advantage of trade opportunities depends on more than trade policies. Investments in education, health systems, and infrastructure can provide women with the human capital they require to benefit from trade. From this dialogue, we hope to achieve greater institutional support that promotes and facilitates women entrepreneurs to the attainment of the standards and certifications as a mean to foster the global sustainability agenda.

Where do we go from here?

This dialogue will provide guidance on developing more attention to the impact of sustainability standards in meeting SDG 5: Gender Equality, and how can we do better. Together with all the partners involved, UNFSS will propose a gender and VSS research agenda that can fill the existing gap in academic literature and research on this issue.


[1] The World Bank, “Labor Force, Female (% of Total Labor Force), World,” The World Bank Databank (2019)
[2] The World Bank (2020), “Women and trade: the role of trade in promoting gender equality”.

UNFSS is an initiative of 5 UN agencies: UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), International Trade Centre (ITC), UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and UN Environment. UNFSS addresses the sustainable development value of Sustainability Standards by pooling resources, synchronizing efforts, and assuring policy coherence through a multi-stakeholder approach.