How to use voluntary standards to achieve the SDGs

16 / Nov / 16

By Juan Carlos Isaza*

The role of Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) is very much a point of discussion at the moment among many stakeholders in the coffee sector. The United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS) therefore took place at an ideal point in time. Its objective was to launch their Second Flagship Report on VSS and to explore the role of governments in their implementation.

The potential benefits and risks of using VSS

As we have now come to a time when we look beyond the measurement of
uptake rates, the focus for the past 5 years has been on how VSS have
resulted in positive change for producers, for whole communities, and
for the environment. A member of the GCP and a presenter at this event,
the Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA) detail some extremely
valuable findings in regards to the social, economic and environmental
impacts of VSS. In light of this, multilateral organisations and
government representatives from China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico
and South Africa, among many others, exchanged their perspectives on how
to best use voluntary standards in achieving the SDGs and what are the
critical success factors. Although there was not a clear consensus, many
agreed that standards have the potential to help national sectors and
directly impact the SDGs.

However, there are several issues which must be addressed in order to use VSS effectively:

  • The cost of implementing standards means we need to support national sectors and build capacity.
  • There is a need to build ownership of standards among local actors.
  • A
    proliferation of standards might be confusing. Therefore, governments
    should only implement the standards which best meet their local needs.
  • Standards can discriminate against Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises and agricultural smallholders.
  • Crucially, standards can fail to address all producers (particularly those selling to the domestic market).

Therefore, it was emphasized that VSS should be inclusive, operate in local contexts and benefit those in need.

The need for a national forum

Participants agreed that it is necessary to have a mediated space or forum to further discuss and define the best ways the UNFSS can support countries to enhance the ability of local actors (particularly governments) to use voluntary standards to achieve the SDG’s, while at the same time monitoring any negative side effects that could limit national producers.

With the Global Coffee Platform having already created a similar structure in gathering public and private sector coffee stakeholders to strengthen national capacities and address local realities, it was very important to see the resounding recognition of the need for multi-stakeholder partnerships.

Pioneering strategy

UNFSS’s initiative is a confirmation of the path and strategies that the GCP is implementing. The role of both governments and Voluntary Sustainability Standards is pivotal to achieving our common vision of a thriving and sustainable coffee world. By aligning the efforts, resources and knowledge of coffee stakeholders around a common objective, at a local, national and global level, the GCP is driving the coffee sector’s transformation towards sustainability.

The UNFSS workshop allowed us to identify links with new organizations and explore relationships and strategies that will help us address those critical challenges through global cooperation. We shared this experience, and the work of the UNFSS, to demonstrate the progress we can make when a sector works together in the same direction.