Voluntary Sustainability Standards for People, Planet, and Prosperity: Focus on G20

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed systemic fragilities across the globe. The pandemic has not only been a global health crisis but also has severely impacted the global economy and financial markets. The pandemic has affected people’s livelihoods, health and disrupted food systems. Significant reductions in income, rise in unemployment, and disruption in services have been common aftermath, especially in the developing countries.

Fig.1 International trade plunged as the virus spread (Source: https://unctad.org/system/files/official-document/osg2020d1_en.pdf )

Impact on Trade:

A sharp decline in overall global trade following the pandemic was also witnessed (Fig.1). In the G20 countries, which account for more than 75 per cent of global trade, many trade restrictions were put in place.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, 144 COVID-19 trade and trade-related measures in goods have been implemented by G20 economies. Of these, 73% were of a trade-facilitating nature and 27% could be considered trade restrictive. However, the latest studies have stressed the fact that trade has been key to combat COVID-19. Recently, the G20  economies generally demonstrated restraint in the imposition of new restrictive trade measures related to the pandemic and have continued to roll back restrictions adopted earlier during the crisis.

For the recovery from the pandemic to be sustainable and to leverage international value chains, it is imperative that international trade supports global goals of economic growth, environmental protection, and social equity. This becomes even more important in light of the “Recover Together, Recover Stronger” agenda set by the G20 Presidency of Indonesia.

“Trade has been central to combating the pandemic — a lifeline for access to medical supplies and food,” (Director-General WTO, 28 October 2021;  Source)

Adopting relevant tools to ensure a sustainable recovery and facilitate trade:

One of the key tools that promote sustainable trade are Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS). VSS have grown considerably over the last decade. They are not only driven by the agenda to foster responsible production and consumption practices, but also have the impetus to increase transparency, provide accountability. This is key for ensuring sustainable trade and advancing Sustainable Value Chains (SVCs).

VSS are active in almost all G20 countries, their number depending considerably on the size of economies. The recently released UNFSS policy note “G20 countries engagement with the Sustainable Development Agenda through Voluntary Sustainability Standards” highlights the potential role of VSS in fostering trade and sustainable value chains in the G20 nations. The note further presents key policy recommendations:

  1. It is essential to create a collaborative environment that facilitates the transformation to SVCs
  2. Integrate sustainability practices in public policies, support sustainability-enhancing market access; and
  3. Continue to provide the needed aid and support to developing countries to assist in their transformation to SVCs.

As the premier forum for international economic co-operation, the G20 plays an important role in fostering trade and sustainable development agenda. The note complements the 2021 G20 specifies priorities that include the sustainability and resilience of agri-food systems and illustrates the role that VSS can play in ensuring sustainable trade and agri-food systems.

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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