The Tools of Trade: Exploring challenges and opportunities of Voluntary Sustainability Standards in the forthcoming UNFSS 5th Flagship Report

The recently approved UNCTAD XV Bridgetown Covenant recalls that “today, many Sustainable Development Goals are behind schedule, and, despite remarkable efforts and progress, many people and places have not managed to enjoy the benefits of progress. The tools of trade, investment, technology, and finance can do more to change this reality and foster a more inclusive, sustainable, equitable and resilient world.”

Voluntary Sustainability Standards are one such tools of trade that leverage sustainability criteria as a means to enhance export potential, while working towards the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development. They are used to ensure that a product in question is produced, processed or transported in accordance with certain sustainability metrics, including basic human rights, labor standards, gender equality and environmental impacts.

Today, there are over 450 VSS operating in the global market, many of which apply to agricultural commodities such as coffee, cocoa, tea, bananas, sugar, cotton, and palm oil, exported by developing countries. For instance, more than 25% of the global cocoa production is certified.

It is expected that compliance with VSS requirements could contribute to mitigating environmental crises, and improving social and economic sustainability in terms of food security, improved livelihood, job creation, and poverty alleviation, among others. However, there are concerns to be addressed in order to achieve these potential gains. VSS could also represent a challenge for small producers in developing countries. VSS can increase information and production costs and eventually exclude smallholders and producers in developing countries from participating in GVCs.

The upcoming UNFSS 5th Flagship Report, Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS), Sustainability Agenda, and Developing Countries: Opportunities and Challenges, responds to these issues and aims to study the role of Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) in advancing the sustainability agenda in developing countries. The report also assesses the opportunities and challenges associated with VSS uptake in these countries.

Against this background, the upcoming 5th Flagship Report broadly aims to:

  • Study the opportunities VSS offer for developing countries and their roles in advancing the environmental, social, and economic sustainability agenda in these countries.
  • Present the challenges that developing countries face with regard to VSS uptake.
  • Based on the above, provide policy implications for both policymakers and researchers.

Stay tuned for more information and registration details of the upcoming Sustainable Trade and VSS Dialogue!

Find out about the UNFSS Flagship Series:

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About the UNFSS Flagship Series

In order to tackle the challenges that VSS posed on developing countries, UNFSS promotes proactive approaches to national policy and information exchanges on VSS, which enables developing countries not only to minimize potential costs associated with adjustment to VSS, but also to maximize related economic, social and environmental benefits.

UNFSS publishes biennially a flagship report on diverse topics to do with Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS), our mission and activities, for our stakeholders from the public and private sectors. The first volume of the Flagship Report released in 2013 was the interplay of VSS and public governance. The 2016 Flagship Report sought to further dissect the interplay between VSS and public governance processes by striving to answer the question “what are the optimal dynamics between VSS and public policy processes to ensure sustainability objectives are most efficiently met”. The 2018 Flagship Report identified the resemblance of VSS and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 2020 report analysed how VSS are (and can be) integrated into Sustainable Public Procurement (SPP) and trade policy respectively.

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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