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Voluntary sustainability standards

What are voluntary sustainability standards (VSS)?

Have you ever wondered if the clothes you wear, or the food you eat, were sourced from firms or fields that have adequate work conditions for employees and give back to the community where they operate? Businesses that do so probably adopt a set of standards (see guide on standards) known as voluntary sustainability standards (VSS). VSS involve guidelines, rules and requirements aiming to foster sustainability along global value chains by ensuring businesses use resources and processes that do not do not damage the environment and people. VSS tend to focus on economic sectors such as forestry, farming, mining or fishing, but they all target a range of sustainability objectives that may include: 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.

Types of VSS

VSS can come in different types according to the sectors, issues, production processes and governance mechanisms they focus on. VSS are mostly governed by non-state actors that include companies, industry associations and non-for-profit organizations. These design well-known standards such as 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, such as 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) offers a lecture on the differences between VSS 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 in existence, consumers, businesses, governments and other stakeholders are putting closer attention to how companies mainstream sustainability practices that consider 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. Business experiences have demonstrated that companies should always assess whether certification to meet certain standards is profitable according to market and company characteristics. To conduct such assessments, the International Trade Centre (ITC) offers a course on the benefits and costs of certification and a VSS SME coaching program that can help your business to prepare for VSS certification processes. Canada’s SME Sustainability Roadmap offers an 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 in sharing subject matter expertise and recognizing best business practices by developing VSS. VSS issuers vary according to the standards’ scope. For instance, Cocoa Life, the Sustainable Agriculture Network, and the Ethical Trading Initiative figure among the organizations granting VSS that apply to single products or a group of them. 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. For more information, see ITC’s lecture on VSS.

How can I get started with certification for VSS?

A number of articles, tools and trainings on voluntary standards can provide you with a snapshot on planning strategies and strategic steps you can follow to certify your business. Some of these are highlighted as follows:

  • ITC’s Standards Map: 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 e-learning on standards map: ITC’s Standards Map provides a series of online lecturers on topics that introduce businesses with the concepts and scope of voluntary standards and insights on cost-benefit analysis of certification.
  • ITC’s Sustainability Map: Through ITC’s Sustainability Map, businesses can create an online profile to find partners and customers for gaining access to sustainable markets.
  • ISEAL’s resources on sustainability practices for businesses: The ISEAL Alliance represents a movement of sustainability standards that supports businesses to adopt good practices for mainstreaming sustainability in business operations.