Research Frontiers on the Adoption, Impact and Effectiveness of Voluntary Sustainability Standards

The United Nations introduced the word “sustainability” into common usage, and defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”- Brundtland Report, 1987. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has broadened the scope and premise of the strategies for development with full considerations for social factors as it includes employment, education, nutrition, health, income distribution, poverty reduction, basic needs, the environment. However, there cannot be substantial measurable contributions without research.

Research will forever be a very important ingredient of development and its significance will forever remain relevant for any system that want to grow and merge up with their counterparts across the world. Every improvement is traceable to research. It usually starts off with a problem and the cause of the problem was consciously and effortfully discovered thus, the required solution was effectively appropriated where a system is able to foster added knowledge.

On November 2021, the UNFSS co-organized the Academic Advisory Council (AAC) meeting together with the Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies and the German Development Institute (DIE) which was hosted at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence. The meeting was conducted in a hybrid format with some participants joined in-person and some who joined virtually.

The meeting brought together an international mix of academic (members of the AAC) and policy experts from various disciplines and backgrounds to consolidate the knowledge on VSS and contribute to a comprehensive understanding of VSS impact and effectiveness.

The academic and policy sessions were organized typically to foster a debate and progress on VSS as a tool to enhance sustainable development. This AAC session discussed the role of VSS in international trade, the impact of VSS on socio-economic and environmental sustainability, the role of VSS in public policy, and the future of VSS. While the meeting mainly aims to foster the knowledge on VSS, it also seeks to link researchers to policy makers in a way that facilitates informed policies through research. In addition, it also provided inputs to strengthen future empirical and theoretical research capacities upon which further research can be conducted.

“The EUI’s work goes beyond academia, and with the UNFSS AAC, the EUI becomes a prime partner of an international organization that are able to further enhance the benefits of previous and existing joint works and exchanges on VSS. The goal of the meeting comes in threefold: To present the latest research results on VSS, to identify potential areas of research and to summarize and disseminate the findings in a report.”Professor Bernard Hoekman, Director, Global Economics at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, EUI.

The Academic Advisory Council (AAC) was designed to pursue the following scientific objectives: understand the effectiveness on VSS and the determinants of its 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 being these different perspectives into one overarching network on the effectiveness of VSS, thus contributing to a comprehensive understanding of VSS effectiveness.

“The AAC itself is a network of renowned academic expert to foster credibility in the research and analysis mandate. Many countries are addressing (voluntarily) or have to address (mandatory) sustainability standards to implement the SDGs and achieve the goals. However, they face many challenges in doing so and do not always achieve the desired goals. Against the backdrop, the members of the forum draw on the knowledge of UNFSS to be informed about VSS in terms of the latest data, transparency measures and use of research information.”Mr. Santiago Fernandez de Cordoba, Senior Economist and UNFSS Coordinator, UNCTAD.

Academic and policy making collaborations can bring tremendous advantage but it can also present challenges such as the disconnect between theory and practice. Thus, it is important to understand that the role of policy makers that is not just to promote specific standards, but to support the different sectors and stakeholders with capacities for them to comply with the standards. Where academic and industry actors can be part of policy making, they are key actors to provide feedback and recommendations for public institutions to consider, including signifying the continuous role of VSS in supporting relevant policies, especially on food security and sustainability, the integration of technologies for smart farming, global value chains, development and technical assistance etc.

“Governments have a crucial role to play in defining how VSS can create impact. We need to look forward and further explore the governance processes and how VSS can combine with other policies to yield impact. We should question ourselves as policy makers, should governments further engage with VSS as private governance instruments? How? What are the obstacles? How to use VSS in an inclusive way? And, finally, how can VSS be used to achieve the SDGs?”Dr. Mercedes Aràoz Fernàndez, Universidad del Pacifico and former Prime Minister of Peru.

Some key takeaways from the 2-day meeting includes:

  • The wide array of topics discussed in 2 full days may have been a difficult task to point to only a few key takeaways, but it has definitely confirmed that there are many topics within the economic, social and environmental sphere that are pertinent to the dynamics of VSS. These topics range from child labor to human rights, from living wages to premium prices (and the complexities to measure acceptable profit distribution along supply chains), from climate change to biodiversity policy mixes, from stakeholder engagement myths to market exclusion mechanisms etc.
  • With all the presentations, two key concerns have been raised that makes research in the VSS area a constant challenge: 1) lack of data and the credibility of data and 2) no clear definition of concepts, where the definition of sustainability itself and the underlying trade-offs questions the effectiveness of sustainability.
  • Another common point that have been identified among researchers is the fact that the results are often very mixed and highly context-specific, which makes them rather inconclusive and hard to move forward.
  • VSS is becoming a global governance issue and requires systemic pathways moving forward – through the UNFSS initiative that brings research dialogues among stakeholders and policy makers, this may be a step towards better global VSS governance.

“A common challenge for researchers is the lack of data availability and quality, and hence that policy roundtables on data gaps, data gathering, and consolidation are key to enable research to inform policy-making.” Dr. Axel Marx, Deputy Director of the Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies, KU Leuven.

What´s Next? Follow us as we continue to foster the dialogue on research frontiers of VSS. These discussions are a stepping stone for researchers and policy makers to consider systemic pathways to better adopt VSS that are able to create impact and measure effectiveness. Many of these discussions will also feed into the 5th UNFSS Flagship report anticipated to be published in September 2022.

Download the full summary of proceedings here.

Academic Presentations include (all PPT downloadable here):

  • To trade, or not to trade, that’s the question: Insights on the trade effects of food standards Miet Maertens, Janne Bemelmans, KU Leuven
  • Child Labour & GVCs, Marcelo Olarreaga, University of Geneva
  • Voluntary Sustainability Standards and trade agreements with environmental provisions: complements? Mattia Di Ubaldo and Vikrant Shirodkar, University of Sussex Business School
  • No Logo? The Failure of Salmon Labelling by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council in Norway and the UK, Lars H. Gulbrandsen, Fridtjof Nansen Institute
  • Sustainability Standards: A new deal to build forward better, Joseph Wozniak, ITC
  • Better Trade for Sustainable Development: The role of VSS, Santiago Fernandez De Cordoba, and Niematallah Elamin, UNCTAD
  • Informing Action for a Sustainable Future, Karin Kreider, ISEAL
  • VSS & the SDGs: Mapping transnational linkages for Sustainable Development, Clara Brandi, DIE
  • Status of living wages in VSS, Elisabeth Bennett, Lewis & Clark College
  • The contribution of corporate protected areas to biodiversity conservation in tropical commodity crop landscapes, Robert Heilmayr, University of California
  • Accounting for Nature: Agriculture and Mitigation in the Era of Global Climate Change, Shaila Seshia Galvin, Graduate Institute of Geneva
  • Explaining compliance with VSS, Thomas Dietz, University of Münster
  • The Future of VSS Growth: Adoption Dynamics of the FSC, Charline Depoorter, and Axel Marx, KU Leuven
  • The impact of VSS to vulnerable groups and the possible way forward, Li Li, University of International Business and Economics
  • Four Faced: Does improved compliance to VSS undermine environmental sustainability? Benjamin Cashore, National University of Singapore
  • OECD Due Diligence Guidelines, Luca Maiotti, OECD
  • VSS and Due Diligence, Archna Negi, Jawaharlal Nehru University
  • The Myth of Democratic Legitimacy, Hamish van der Ven, University of British Columbia
  • A policy mix approach to biodiversity governance: the case of Colombia, Eric F. Lambin, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment
  • Pan-tropical insights on the contextual effectiveness and equity of forest-focused supply chain policies, Rachael Garrett, ETH Zürich

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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