New Report Shows Voluntary Sustainability Standards Can Contribute to Poverty Reduction

Voluntary sustainability standards (VSSs) such as Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, and Bonsucro can help reduce global poverty among the smallholder farmers that make up many of the world’s poor, according to a new report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). 

 “We found that sustainability standards can bring farmers a number of socio-economic and environmental benefits that can complement broader poverty reduction efforts,” said Sara Elder, the report’s lead author and Policy Advisor with IISD’s State of Sustainability Initiatives (SSI). 

As part of the new SSI Review: Standards and Poverty Reduction report, IISD examined the criteria of 13 widely adopted VSSs against a framework to understand how compliance with these standards can improve the three dimensions of poverty reduction for smallholder farmers: access to resources; opportunities and choice; and power and voice.

The researchers also identified key factors influencing smallholder farmer access to VSS-compliant markets through interviews with 57 people in six countries, including farmers, value chain actors, policy-makers, and certification bodies, in a joint field study by IISD and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).  

The analysis showed that complying with VSSs can address poverty-related issues in a variety of ways. For instance, VSSs provide access to training and skills improvement to farmers that directly support better practices, producer knowledge, and the capacity to grow higher-quality and more sustainable products. In turn, this can bring farmers higher and more stable prices and crop income, as well as increased social capital via stronger producer organizations. 

“For VSSs to contribute to poverty reduction, there must be a number of enabling conditions in place that support smallholder farmers to comply with and maintain certification,” Elder said. “These conditions include an ecosystem of supporting actors that work closely with farmers, access to information and training, and sufficient market demand for compliant products.” 

To that end, the report offers specific recommendations to VSS bodies, value chain actors, and governments. These recommendations include improving farmers’ knowledge of VSSs, establishing a living income for farmers, supporting smallholder access to productive and sustainable land, stimulating demand for VSS-compliant products, and facilitating links between producers and buyers. 

The authors also provide recommendations focused on helping VSS bodies to better address the dimensions of poverty by, for instance, enhancing support for business and market diversification, improving monitoring and assurance systems, and adopting a gender-equality approach. 


The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) is an award-winning independent think tank working to accelerate solutions for a stable climate, sustainable resource management, and fair economies. Our work inspires better decisions and sparks meaningful action to help people and the planet thrive. We shine a light on what can be achieved when governments, businesses, non-profits, and communities come together. IISD’s staff of more than 120 people, plus over 150 associates and consultants, come from across the globe and from many disciplines. With offices in Winnipeg, Geneva, Ottawa, and Toronto, our work affects lives in nearly 100 countries. 


IISD’s State of Sustainability Initiatives (SSI) is an international research project that aims to advance sustainable and inclusive value chains. It provides credible and solutions-oriented analysis and dialogue on voluntary sustainability standards and their potential to contribute to sustainable development outcomes. 

Our flagship SSI Reviews are evidence-based reports on the characteristics and market performance of VSSs to help supply chain decision-makers and policy-makers navigate the complex field of sustainability standards.