Voluntary Sustainability Standards in International Trade

Global trade offers huge potential to contribute to sustainable development, but it must be governed in a way that mitigates some of its negative impacts on sustainability.

Accordingly, many initiatives have been developed that seek to govern global trade in a way that would make it more sustainable. One important initiative is the development and implementation of voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) relating to products and production processes.

The United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards defines VSS as “Standards specifying requirements that producers, traders, manufacturers, retailers or service providers may be asked to meet, relating to a wide range of sustainability metrics, including respect for basic human rights, worker health and safety, the environmental impacts of production, community relations, land use planning and others.

This report provides an introduction to VSS as instruments for making international trade more sustainable.

  • Chapter I describes VSS, how they emerged and how they have evolved. It shows that they have grown significantly as a tool for transnational governance in terms of the number of VSS, the number of sectors and commodities in which they are active, and the share of certified production of some key commodities in total global production of those commodities.
  • Chapter II delves into how VSS work to achieve sustainability goals. It describes in detail how VSS operate and the different actors involved in the certification process. The chapter also highlights the significant diversity among VSS.
  • Chapter III takes stock of the current literature and evidence on the effectiveness of VSS. Effectiveness is approached from two different dimensions. One dimension focuses on the use or uptake of VSS. The second focuses on the impacts of VSS on the ground on different sustainability indicators, with a specific focus on their social and environmental impacts.
  • Chapter IV describes the use of VSS by other trade-related policy instruments. It details how VSS are integrated into public policy as complementary instruments to achieve public policy goals.