Voluntary sustainability standards

What are voluntary sustainability standards (VSS)


Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) are a set of standards which aim to encourage sustainability along global value chains, by ensuring businesses use resources and processes that do not damage the environment or people. This benefits both the business and the consumer, provides good working conditions for employees, and has a positive impact on the environment.


Voluntary Sustainability Standards tend to focus mainly on business sectors such as forestry, farming, mining or fishing, but they also target a range of sustainability objectives, such as:

  • respect for basic human rights;
  • worker health and safety;
  • environmental protection;
  • community relations and others.


To learn more about the concepts and business perspectives around VSS, you can visit the knowledge base of the International Trade Centre’s (ITC) Standards Map see link below.


Types of VSS


VSS can come in various forms depending on which the sector, issue, production process or governance mechanisms they focus on. VSS are mostly governed by non-state actors that include:

  • companies,
  • industry associations
  • not-for-profit organizations


Some well-known standards include GlobalGap, a farm insurance program, or Starbucks’ CAFÉ practice to ethically source coffee beans. Public agencies such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) also develop standards, for example, a process to certify whether products are organic. Other standards are the result of multi-stakeholder initiatives, including the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).


The International Trade Centre (ITC) website offers information and resources that can give you further insights on the various types of VSS that may be in demand in the market.


Why do VSS matter for my business to trade?


VSS have become increasingly relevant for businesses, consumers and regulators because of their role in contributing to societal objectives such as social rights protection, fair prices, environment conservation, and food security.


Most VSS relate to environmental, social and economic objectives, which assess business practices to ensure sustainability through product quality, management practices and ethics.


With over 500 VSS now in existence, consumers, businesses, governments and other stakeholders are paying closer attention to how companies can consider the needs of consumers, workers and supply chain actors. While the adoption of VSS can represent business costs, it can also lead to benefits in improving management and monitoring systems, productivity, and access to credit, which are relevant for expanding business operations and reaching new markets through participation in international trade.


The International Trade Centre (ITC) offers a VSS SME (Small and Medium Enterprises) training programme for coaches to help business to prepare for VSS certification processes. Canada’s government website also includes an SME Sustainability Roadmap/SME Sustainability Map that may also be able to assist you to gain benefits from VSS certifications.


Who develops VSS?


Industry associations, consumer groups, and other stakeholders collaborate to develop VSS by sharing subject matter expertise and recognizing best business practices. VSS issuers vary according to the standards’ scope. For example, Cocoa Life, the Sustainable Agriculture Network, and the Ethical Trading Initiative are among the organizations granting VSS that apply to single products or a group of products.

Other organizations such as Fairtrade Small Producers, and the Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Tourism, focus on the ability of businesses to meet social and environmental objectives.


How can I get started with certification for VSS?


A number of articles, tools and training courses on voluntary standards are available for business owners wishing to learn more about VSS. Some of these are highlighted as follows:


  • ITC offers an analytical toolkit that enables businesses to review and compare 320+ standards by product, sector, area, or focus. This tool focuses on voluntary sustainability standards (VSS), codes of conduct, audit protocols, reporting frameworks and company programs on sustainability.
  • ITC’s new Sustainability Gateway provides examples of sustainability projects in action.
  • Through ITC’s Sustainability Map, businesses can create an online profile to find partners and customers for gaining access to sustainable markets.
  • The ISEAL Alliance represents a movement of sustainability standards that supports businesses to adopt good practices for mainstreaming sustainability in business operations.


Links to Supporting Information


Trade4MSME Guide Standards


Government of Canada’s SME Sustainability Roadmap SME Sustainability Roadmap (canada.ca)


International Trade Centre’s (ITC) Standards Map StandardsMap


The International Trade Centre (ITC) Sustainability Map Sustainability Map


The International Trade Centre (ITC) Home – SustainabilityMap (sustainabilitygateway.org)


International Trade Centre (ITC) VSS SME coaching program Virtual Workshopping – Training of Coaches on T4SD’s VSS Expert Methodology & Tool


The ISEAL Alliance ISEAL’s resources on sustainability practices for businesses


The Institute of Export and International Trade Export essentials: building and maintaining a green supply chain – The Institute of Export and International Trade

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