A clump of bananas being carried by a person

Standards and Value Chains

Voluntary sustainability standards (VSSs) set guidelines and provide supporting services for producing and selling products in ways that help improve the livelihoods of local communities and protect the environment. But the multitude and variety of standards can pose a challenge for decision-makers looking to use VSSs to make a difference.

Agricultural commodity markets are getting more volatile, extreme weather events are becoming more common, and millions more people are facing poverty and hunger. The need to advance more sustainable forms of production, consumption, and trade is as critical as ever.

As awareness of the sustainability challenges facing agricultural value chains has grown over the last 3 decades, so has the demand and supply of VSS-compliant products. There are now more than 400 VSSs operating across the planet. They have emerged to help protect the environment and improve the livelihoods of smallholder producers across different sectors.

VSSs provide manufacturers and retailers with information about the origin and sourcing conditions of a product. They also provide consumers with some assurance of the sustainability efforts taken for their production and manufacturing. Some are international in their scope, such as Fairtrade International, GLOBALG.A.P., and Rainforest Alliance. Others have a local or regional focus, such as Indian-based Trustea, Madagascar Organic, or the African Organisation for Standardisation.

However, the diversity of these initiatives makes it increasingly challenging for stakeholders to stay informed on their utility, performance, and best practices. In addition, many VSSs are created by small groups of collaborating partners, influencing their impartiality. Since VSSs set rules for production and trade, they should ensure inclusive governance from their design to their implementation. 

The State of Sustainability Initiatives

Since 2008, IISD’s State of Sustainability Initiatives has been working to advance sustainable and inclusive value chains. We provide credible and solution-oriented research, dialogue, and strategic advice to decision-makers about VSSs and associated initiatives.

Our goal is to help decision-makers use VSSs as needed to support more sustainable production, consumption, and trade. This work includes helping small-scale producers and micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises in developing countries access markets and receive fair remuneration.