Fostering Sustainable Trade in the APEC Region

On 14 September 2021, the UNFSS co-organized a 3-day Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Stakeholder VSS Awareness Workshop together with the APEC Secretariat and the Department of Standards Malaysia.

APEC is comprised of 21 member economies which aims to create greater prosperity for the people of the region by promoting balanced, inclusive, sustainable and secure growth and by accelerating regional economic integration.

Against this background, the UNFSS has been a close partner to deliberate the APEC Project SCSC 06 2019A – Understanding the Roles and Impact of Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) to Trade in the APEC Region. The workshop is part of this project under the purview of the APEC Sub-Committee on Standards and Conformance (SCSC) and hosted by Malaysia. The workshop aims to:

  1. Provide knowledge on the various VSS in the APEC region;
  2. Function as a platform to discuss issues related to VSS in selected sectors in the APEC region and sharing of best practices on implementation of VSS by APEC member economies;
  3. Publish a compendium of best practices on implementation of VSS among APEC member economies;
  4. Explore possible public-private partnership on VSS in the APEC region or continuous collaboration with other international organizations working on VSS.

“Although VSS were created by the private sector to meet cultural changes and demand for healthier and sustainable products where the market dictates and the power is in the choices consumers make, civil society and the media, governments must lead this process to ensure that VSS are aligned with international norms and practices.” – APEC Executive Director, Tan Sri Dr. Rebecca Sta Maria during her opening speech.

APEC Executive Director, Tan Sri Dr. Rebecca Sta Maria, Director-General of Standards Malaysia, Mr. Shaharul Sadri Bin Alwi and UNCTAD Senior Economist and UNFSS Coordinator, Mr. Santiago Fernandez de Cordoba, have reiterated in their opening speeches that the current state of sustainability crisis does require a paradigm shift in the way we produce and consume.

Besides these pre-existing challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic implies further complications for developing economies. As the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic are mainly severe in structurally developing economies, VSS have a potential role to holistically promote sustainable development in production and consumption.

The role of trade has been brought up many times in the discussion. Trade has been defined as means for the implementation of sustainable development. Given the size and level of trade within the APEC region as well as between APEC member economies, trade could largely contribute to the achievement of sustainability. APEC is indeed the makers and takers of standards.

Other interesting concepts that was brought up to contribute to the trajectory of sustainable trade within APEC was commitment, collaboration and accountability, as well as transparency, communication, consultation and traceability. Many of these concepts are not new in many VSS discussions but worth the reiteration between parties. The UNFSS mandates to support national and regional multi stakeholder platform can clearly be an objective goal moving forward.

This entire project was deliberated to provide a platform to share information and initiate discussions on VSS among the APEC member economies so that each member can gain understanding on the various VSS implemented in certain industry sectors in APEC. The project also aims to share best practices of implementing VSS, and discuss issues related to VSS that could be shared by member economies that are already applying VSS. This discourse could possibly lead to the initial step of a new public-private governance interactions on VSS within the APEC region.

“This project aims to facilitate the participation of developing APEC economies, inclusively and sustainably in global trade through VSS and raising the awareness on the gaps that need to be addressed in the field.” Standards Malaysia Director-General, Mr. Shaharul Sadri Alwi during his opening speech.

This project largely seeks the participation of policy makers related to trade, agriculture, and commodities. Policy makers can make more informed decisions in supporting their industry to be better equipped with the necessary tools to meet VSS requirements or negotiating between member economies on the acceptance of a common VSS. In the long run, it will help build APEC member economies, especially small producers in developing economies with the capacity to achieve sustainable growth, equitable economic development, and participate in the global economy through implementing VSS in selected economic sectors.

“There are roles for the governments to provide these awareness as well as market access for their certified products, an incentive for producers to comply to VSS. From this discussion, Malaysia would like to bring the attention of this subject to the APEC SCSC to deepen cooperation between APEC and UNCTAD, with the hopes to provide better policy making within each economy and also to foster partnership in the application of VSS.”Standards Malaysia Senior Director of Standardization, Mr. Husalmizzar Hussain

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes international trade as an engine for economic growth and an important means to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and sustainability standards offer explicit strategies to link trade with better practices. These practices may directly and indirectly target these mentioned sustainability hotspots in the APEC region.

As part of the project, a pre-workshop survey was also disseminated among the APEC member economies. Survey respondents have mostly agreed to the need to tackle the lack of access to adequate information and awareness in the economies/region when considering VSS in public policies. Discussions from the workshop will feed into the Compendium of Best Practices which is anticipated to be published at the end of this year. This is only the starting point to drive VSS towards sustainable trade in the APEC Region.

“The impact of trade as well as the APEC member economies can promote market opportunities around the world and promoting the importance of VSS in national consumption and production in terms of accountability. The next steps would be to enhance the knowledge and understanding within each economy, enhance transparency and accountability with mechanisms in terms of policy making.”UNCTAD´s Senior Economist and UNFSS Coordinator, Mr. Santiago Fernandez de Cordoba


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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