Navigating the Landscape of Voluntary Sustainability Standards: Challenges and Opportunities for Developing Countries 

Countries are striving to implement sustainable practices in the face of multiple crises, including climate change and food insecurity, as well as disruptions in international trade. There is thus a clear need for a profound transformation to achieve sustainable development. There has been a growing interest in the role that trade and trade policy measures, such as voluntary sustainability standards (VSS), can play in advancing sustainable development and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Following this impetus, the United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS), along with its partners from the Leuven School of Global Governance, KU Leuven, and the Centre for International Environmental Studies at the Graduate Institute of Geneva, conducted an academic workshop on the opportunities and challenges of VSS, with a focus on developing countries. The workshop discussed the findings of the UNFSS 5th Flagship Report and expanded research discussions on VSS through a multidisciplinary approach, covering development, economic, political, and legal perspectives.  

In UNFSS, we have a strong interest to increase the transparency of the VSS and provide analysis and data on the VSS contributions to support developing countries achieve sustainable development goals.”

Santiago Fernandez de Cordoba, Chief VSS program, UNFSS

VSS have become an increasingly important topic in the global discourse on sustainability and a topic that is widely researched. To further scientific and evidence-based knowledge sharing on VSS, the UNFSS has established an Academic Advisory Council (AAC). Leveraging the expertise of the AAC members, UNFSS published its 5th Flagship Report entitled “Voluntary Sustainability Standards, Sustainability Agenda and Developing Countries Opportunities and Challenges, which was presented during the workshop. The report lays out multiple roles of VSS to advance the sustainability agenda in developing countries and assess the opportunities and challenges associated with VSS.  

VSS try to make sure that producers who want to have their label, comply with certain principles and requirements, which are based mostly on already existing on international commitments, like the ILO principles. VSS further develop indicators that allow measurement of compliance.”

Axel Marx, Deputy Director, Leuven Centre for Global Governance, KU Leuven

Glimpses from the workshop

The workshop discussed how VSS present a promising opportunity for developing countries to advance their sustainability agenda. Further the discussions indicated that based on extant research, VSS can have a positive impact on sustainability outcomes however developing countries face several challenges, such as limited resources and lack of capacity, in adopting and implementing VSS. 

In some value chains, there is a strong presence of big multinational companies that buy all the certified product but have a quota for it. This further affects the farmers who are producing the certifying products but then cannot sell it at a premium price because once the big multinational companies meet the quota, they do not buy anymore certified products.”

Charline Depoorter, PhD researcher, Leuven Centre for Global Governance, KU Leuven

While developing countries face some challenges related to the cost of certification, lack of incentives, socio-political resistance to VSS, access to technology needed for certification, and the problem of maintaining certification over time, VSS have also been proven to help farmers increase their market access and income. Some recommendations for the increasing VSS benefits to advance the sustainability agenda were highlighted during the workshop:   

  • the need to advance transparency and research on VSS, and their impact, 
  • the need to reduce market imperfections, the need to provide support to producers to cover certification costs and promote the uptake of VSS, 
  • the need to establish cooperation and mutual recognition, and 
  • the need to prepare for continuously changing developments which require dialogue and collaboration among development partners. 

Speakers also stressed that to overcome challenges faced in harnessing VSS benefits, a broader regulatory approach that combines VSS benefits with national initiatives, due diligence, and policy mixes may be necessary. Policymakers should therefore consider adopting a comprehensive approach that supports the adoption and implementation of VSS in developing countries while addressing the challenges they face. Researchers can contribute by conducting further research on the effectiveness of VSS in promoting sustainability and identifying strategies to overcome the challenges faced by developing countries. 

It is imperative to marry this issue of ambition on the sustainability front, with the issue of fairness and building trust. Because beyond VSS, what we are really trying to do is enable and support countries to transform their economies towards sustainability.”

Carolyn Deere Birkbeck, Director of the Forum on Trade, Environment and the SDGs, Graduate institute, Geneva

Lastly, it was highlighted that VSS are a part of the solution and the whole solution in themselves. In working towards advancing VSS benefits, it is important to ensure that the real advantages of VSS for sustainable development are understood and that the bigger picture of cooperation and sustainable development is not missed.