13 October 2020
SDGs-aligned Voluntary Standards Promote Sustainable Production, Trade: UNCTAD, Partners Report
Photo Credit: Lynn Wagner
story highlights

The report tracks the extent to which sustainable practices promoted by VSS align with SDG targets, and finds that 200 or more VSS are linked to SDG 2, SDG 8, SDG 11, and SDG 12.

Three SDGs have few or no links to VSS: SDG 13, SDG 14, and SDG 17.

The report concludes VSS can contribute to a stronger governance ecosystem to help achieve the SDGs, and offers recommendations for governments, business support organizations, companies, and standards bodies.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the International Trade Centre (ITC), the European University Institute (EUI), the University of Amsterdam (UvA), and the German Development Institute (DIE) released a study that finds there is “significant overlap” between the SDGs and voluntary sustainability standards (VSS). The report highlights how businesses can support progress on the SDG targets by adopting VSS.

The report titled, ‘Linking Voluntary Standards to Sustainable Development Goals,’ uses data from ITC’s Standards Map database to track the extent to which sustainable practices promoted by VSS align with SDG targets. VSS are standards that go beyond minimum legal standards set by governments and aim to reduce adverse environmental and social effects from business activity as well as to respond to stakeholder and consumer demands. The report notes that proponents of VSS view voluntary standards as “among the tools that policymakers and business leaders can deploy to achieve sustainable development objectives through trade.” According to the report, there are over 270 VSS in 15 industries, 180 countries, and 600 product groups. Agriculture is the sector most covered by VSS, by a “significant margin,” followed by textiles and garments, consumer products, and processed foods. 

The report finds that 200 or more VSS are linked to SDG 2 (zero hunger), SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth), SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities), and SDG 12 (responsible production and consumption). Although these SDGs have significant overlap with VSS, coverage varies by country and region. For instance, SDG 8 is the goal with the highest number of VSS linked to it (222) and has a high number of linked VSS in North America, Western Europe, and parts of South America and Asia. However, there are significantly fewer VSS relevant to SDG 8 in Africa and the Middle East. The US, Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Mexico have the highest number of VSS relevant to SDG 8.

Policymakers and business leaders can deploy VSS to achieve sustainable development objectives through trade.

The report finds substantial VSS linkages for SDG 1 (no poverty), SDG 3 (good health and well-being), SDG 4 (quality education), and SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation). On SDG 1, for example, each of the five targets are covered by over 100 VSS, indicating that private governance can contribute to tackling all dimensions of poverty as defined in SDG 1. In contrast, only two out of SDG 4’s seven targets are covered by VSS, but there are 191 VSS linked with target 4.4 on increasing skills development and 60 VSS linked to target 4.3 on equal access to affordable and quality technical, vocational, and tertiary education.

The report highlights an opportunity to align VSS with other SDGs that currently have less coverage, including SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy), SDG 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure), SDG 10 (reduced inequalities), SDG 15 (life on land), and SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions).

According to the report, three SDGs have few or no links to VSS: SDG 13 (climate action) has linkages with 19 VSS; SDG 14 (life below water) has linkages with 61 VSS; and SDG 17, which calls for strengthening the means of implementation and revitalizing the global partnership for sustainable development through finance, technology, capacity building, trade and other systemic issues, has no linkages. The report observes that these three Goals were formulated in a “state-centric way that leaves little room for private governance action” or that these Goals cover issues for which there are few VSS. On SDG 14, for example, there are several voluntary standards in the fishery sector that are relevant for this SDG, but, overall, very few VSS and their requirements address fisheries or other issues related to SDG 14 targets.

The report concludes VSS can contribute to a stronger governance ecosystem to help achieve the SDGs. Policymakers can select from the large number of relevant VSS to deliver the SDGs, contributing to efforts to create greener jobs, build more resilient business ecosystems, and make the business case for micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) to adopt greener technologies. The report cautions, however, that the alignment of the SDGs and VSS is only one element of the debate on VSS effectiveness, and states that it is necessary to also examine how the private sector designs and implements its actions on the ground. In addition, the report observes that the proliferation of VSS in some sectors and countries can lead to adverse competition between programmes and transaction costs and trade barriers for producers, and that VSS can have unintended consequences, such as placing marginalized actors at a disadvantage. Overall, the report concludes there is a role for VSS to contribute to the SDGs, including through raising consumer awareness or demand for political change.

To create more “win-win” situations, the report recommends that governments: build an ecosystem for businesses to produce and trade sustainably; develop a sustainability policy and regulatory framework by integrating sustainability issues into national/sectoral production and trade strategies; and engage with national business support organizations and the private sector to better understand the challenges they face when trying to produce and trade sustainably. The report also offers recommendations for business support organizations, companies, and standards bodies.

The Governments of Germany and Switzerland provided financial support for the report. [Publication: Linking Voluntary Standards to Sustainable Development Goals] [Report Landing Page] [ITC Story on Report]

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