What are Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS)?

Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) are special rules that guarantee that the products you buy don’t hurt the environment and the people that make them.

The number of these standards has grown recently and they can now help build a new, greener economy.


Voluntary Sustainability Standards:

  focus on economic sectors like forestry, farming, mining or fishing

   concentrate on environmental factors like protecting water sources and biodiversity, or reducing greenhouse gas emissions

   support social protections and workers’ rights

   home in on specific parts of production processes

Voluntary Sustainability Standards also:

   support groups like small-scale farmers or producers in developing countries

  cover a full range of environmental impacts throughout a product’s lifecycle

   identify and promote best practice

   support continuous improvement

Voluntary Sustainability Standards may be developed by single businesses, business associations, environmental or social non-governmental organizations, or governments.

Alternatively, more and more such standards try to balance the interests of a wide range of interested parties.

While many Voluntary Sustainability Standards are linked with consumer products, others are used within business-to-business relationships.

For example, Global G.A.P. (Good Agricultural Practices) is a farm management certification scheme pioneered by supermarkets. Another example is ISO26000 which provides guidance to businesses and other organizations on social responsibility to improve their impact on workers, natural environments and communities.

What is the UNFSS?

UNFSS addresses the sustainable development value of voluntary sustainability standards by pooling resources, synchronizing efforts, and assuring policy coherence, coordination and collaboration among United Nations agencies.

The United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS) helps producers, traders, consumers, standard-setters, certification-bodies, trade diplomats, non-governmental organizations and researchers to talk to each other, find out more about Voluntary Sustainability Standards and influence decision makers at the intergovernmental level.

We aim to provide impartial information, analysis, and discussions on Voluntary Sustainability Standards. We also spread the news about how they open markets, strengthen the quality of public goods, and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Just as importantly, we focus on the obstacles to trade and development that Voluntary Sustainability Standards may create, especially regarding their impact on small and medium-sized companies and less developed countries.

We are the only forum that systematically conducts analytical, empirical and capacity-building activities in this field. This means we deal with the generic and strategic challenges created by Voluntary Sustainability Standards in a consistent way without endorsing or legitimizing any specific standard.

Our work is rooted in the existing mandates and activities of participating United Nations agencies. The value of the forum lies in pooling resources, synchronizing efforts and assuring policy coherence, coordination and collaboration.

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How We Are Organized: 

The forum is coordinated by a steering committee of five United Nations agencies:

   The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

   The International Trade Centre (ITC)

   The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)

   The United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment)

  The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)

Our secretariat is based at UNCTAD in Geneva, Switzerland. We have a support group responsible for implementing our work plan and the coordination of all the activities undertaken under the UNFSS name.

How can Voluntary Sustainability Standards Help Developing Countries?

Voluntary Sustainability Standards have the potential to generate significant environmental, economic and social benefits in developing countries.

But decision makers in developing countries often say they have problems with Voluntary Sustainability Standards because:

   they can’t find credible standards

   compliance is costly

   small-scale producers risk being left out

   standards are not harmonized causing unnecessary multiplication

The United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS) was created to respond to these challenges.

It supports decision makers in developing countries find the right information on Voluntary Sustainability Standards, as well as share their experiences and get technical help.

UNFSS is a neutral, independent and credible forum that supports pro-poor sustainable development objectives, and helps developing countries get access to global markets as the economic, social and environmental impacts of production and consumption play an increasingly important role in shaping consumer choices.