The creation of the United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS) is a response to the rapidly expanding environmental/sustainability markets that include a large number of private sector players which are establishing new and diverse standards. With health, social and environmental impacts of production and consumption playing an increasingly important role in shaping consumer preferences, not only in developed but also in emerging markets, a neutral, independent and credible Forum is increasingly needed to provide information on these issues and work towards addressing their sustainable development impacts and harnessing them for supporting pro-poor sustainable development objectives and facilitating access to global markets in developing countries.
Against this backdrop, although legally non-binding, voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) can or in some areas already have become a de facto market entry hurdle. In this dynamic a new perspective is required, i.e. one that regards VSS as a means to sustainable development, not as ends in themselves. VSS must be contextualized in the macro-economic development perspective. In addition, there is an inherent and increasing need for more coherence and coordinated dialogue among standard programs, criteria and processes.
As initially there was no consensus in the relevant committees of the WTO (TBT, SPS and CTE) to systematically discuss developing country concerns on private standards, developing countries urged UNCTAD for more engagement, information and analysis. When initiating activities under UNCTAD’s Consultative Task Force on Environmental Requirements and Market Access for Developing Countries, the secretariat realized that other UN agencies also had mandates on the subject and were implementing a host of analytical, empirical and capacity-building activities, but interaction and information exchange on these activities, let alone coordination, was very limited. That is why the idea was launched to prioritize and streamline relevant activities of UN bodies under one umbrella, the UNFSS.
The UNFSS approaches VSS as a strategic policy issue, linked to the internalization of environmental and social costs, as well as the promotion of developing countries’ competitiveness in and access to growing “sustainability” markets. The key added value of the UNFSS is that it is the first Forum which systematically conducts analytical, empirical and capacity-building activities in this field and deals with generic and strategic problems of VSS in a consistent way, without endorsing or legitimizing any specific VSS.
The UNFSS, therefore, is about addressing the sustainable development value of VSS by pooling resources; synchronizing efforts; and assuring policy coherence, coordination and collaboration among UN agencies, implementing the UN concept of “Acting as One”.