UNFSS Academic Advisory Council Webinar

Roundtable: Sustainability Standards and Social Concerns

Virtual Webinar

4 May 2021, 2:00pm – 3:30pm (CET)


14:00 – 14:05

Opening Introduction by

Rita Mendez, Senior Coordinator, Impacts and Evidence at Evidensia, ISEAL

14:05 – 14:10

Setting-the-Scene by

  • Santiago Fernandez de Cordoba, Senior Economist and UNFSS Coordinator, UNCTAD
14:10 – 14:55

Impulse givers:

  • Verena Bitzer, Research Fellow, Maastricht University
  • Elizabeth Bennett, Joseph M. Ha Associate Professor of International Affairs and Director of Political Economy at Lewis and Clark College.
  • Miet Maertens, Senior Economist at LICOS – Centre for Institutions and Economic Performance, KU Leuven

Moderated by Siti Rubiah Lambert, UNFSS Secretariat, UNCTAD

14:55 – 15:25

Commentators and Q&A

  • Axel Marx, Deputy Director, Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies, University of Leuven
15:25 – 15:30

Concluding Remarks by

Vidya Rangan, Senior Manager, Impacts and Evidence, ISEAL


The pursuit of sustainability, as it is known today, is one that balances the competing and complementary priorities of environmental protection, economic growth, and social equity. There will be no meaningful progress trying to resolve climate change and degradation of global ecosystems without also addressing social equity and the associated economic concerns.

Drawing more deeply on the importance of social sustainability, bringing awareness to the challenges of decent work, labour rights, fair wages, equal opportunities etc., social sustainability has been recognized as central to growth and poverty reduction.

Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) specify requirements that cover a wide range of environmental and socio-economic issues. On the social dimension, VSS cover issues related to improved working conditions, labor rights and safety, fair prices and benefit sharing, fair wages, community development, gender equality, and the promotion of responsible consumption and production, among others. In the last decades, products certified according to their environmental and social sustainability have become an important feature of production, trade, and consumption.[1] Hypothetically, the compliance with these requirements will eventually lead to improved social sustainability in terms of empowerment and inclusion of smallholders in the value chains, food security, improved livelihood, job creation and poverty alleviation, among others.

Even if VSS could be considered as tools to achieve socio-economic and environmental sustainability, the evidence on their impact and effectiveness do not necessarily resemble this theory. Some of the most relevant social components of VSS which can be found in several literatures include:

  • Price premiums and distribution across value chains
  • Income inequality, gender gap and poverty
  • Labour rights including child labour, forced labour, freedom of association and collective bargaining, health, and safety, working hours and discrimination
  • Empowerment of marginalized actors
  • Social upgrading in general in value chains

Overall, assessing the contribution VSS can make to social sustainability is complex. Thus, it is not surprising that the evidence in hand is case specific, inconclusive and does not point largely towards a specific direction. Building a way forward in understanding the association between VSS and the social concerns they attempt to address lies at the heart of this dialogue.

*The areas of concern mentioned above may overlap with some of the areas targeted for economic concerns. This will be discussed in the 3rd AAC webinar session.


The Dialogue

Through this roundtable discussion, the UNFSS’s Academic Advisory Council (AAC) members are brought together to discuss social concerns and its links with the design and effectiveness of sustainability standards. Through knowledge exchanges and policy dialogues, this roundtable discussion will help in providing inputs and developing a common foundation upon which further research and discussion in this area could be conducted. This dialogue is compounded with questions namely:

  1. What is the role of VSS in promoting social sustainability? What do we know about the possibilities of VSS for social upgrading?
  2. On which social dimensions would VSS be a challenge to address, and which of these dimensions can VSS make a difference and/or should prioritize?
  3. What are some of the main knowledge gaps and where do we need more research/ type of research?

UNFSS is an initiative of 5 UN agencies: UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), International Trade Centre (ITC), UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and UN Environment. UNFSS addresses the sustainable development value of Sustainability Standards by pooling resources, synchronizing efforts, and assuring policy coherence through a multi-stakeholder approach.