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Voluntary Sustainability Standards

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Over the last two decades, there has been exponential growth in the demand and supply of leading standard-compliant products, which has led to the growth and proliferation of voluntary sustainability standards (VSSs).

There are now more than 400 VSSs operating across the planet. These include organic items, fair trade and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to name a few. These standards are guidelines for producing, selling and purchasing products in a sustainable manner. They provide manufacturers and retailers with information about the reliability and safety conditions behind a product. They also provide consumers with information about the sustainability efforts taken for their production and manufacturing, with the aim of positively affecting communities, the environment and the economy.

Many of these sustainability initiatives are created by small groups of collaborating partners, influencing their impartiality. This also affects the ability of other stakeholders to provide input into the founding characteristics of the initiatives and how they operate. Because standards and voluntary sustainability initiatives also set rules for production and trade, these standards should ensure an inclusive governance from their design to their implementation. This promotion of good governance in standards initiatives is a key priority for IISD.

Given this growth and the relative contribution of VSSs as tools for sustainable development, IISD presents production and consumption market information in an accessible manner to foster transparency, knowledge and strategic decision making in the State of Sustainability Initiatives (SSI) reporting series. The SSI is an international transparency and capacity-building project that aims to improve strategic planning and sustainable development outcomes related to VSSs by providing in-depth, credible and needs-based information. It equips supply-chain decision-makers and governments with the inclusive and transparent information they need to make informed decisions and contribute to sustainable development.

What do we do?

  • We analyze the founding characteristics and requirements of VSSs versus sustainable development issues, such as biodiversity conservation, poverty reduction and gender equity, to understand their strengths and limitations, and highlight opportunities for improvement.
  • We track and analyze the market performance of sustainable production and consumption of commodity markets and VSSs globally to understand trends and impacts.

How do we do this?

  • We collect primary data from VSSs and standards setters on their systems characteristics and market performance using quantitative and qualitative methods.
  • We conduct research and collect secondary data related to sustainable markets, VSSs and development issues through extensive literature review and establishing strategic partnerships with leading data providers to fill knowledge gaps.
  • We analyze data and provide recommendations for standard setters, private sector and governments to enhance the effectiveness of VSSs as tools for sustainable development.
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