Trade Forum Features

Sustainable trade for all

5 January 2016
ITC News
Sustainable trade and development matters to everyone, everywhere, writes ITC Executive Director Arancha González

Earlier this year, the World Trade Organization hosted its 15th annual Public Forum under the theme ‘Trade Matters to Everyone’. We could say the same about sustainable development. In fact, the two are intertwined: sustainable trade matters to everyone.

This is why the International Trade Centre (ITC) launched the Trade for Sustainable Development initiative (T4SD) five years ago. In a nutshell, the initiative sets out to promote sustainable supply chains. We know that trade in higher value-added products and services are a vital tool for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in developing countries to generate jobs, contribute to growth and reduce poverty. However, we need growth that is both sustained and, more importantly, sustainable.

For many producers, exporters and importers, the sustainability landscape can come across as more confusing than ever. A proliferating array of standards, codes of conduct and other sustainability initiatives are creating complications for consumers, producers – be they multinationals or SMEs – NGOs and governments. The costs associated with complying with these measures weigh particularly heavily on SMEs in developing countries.

To be sure, sustainability initiatives can provide new market opportunities, improve product quality, mitigate environmental degradation, improve compliance with social and labour standards, and serve as a vehicle for boosting the overall competitiveness of SME exporters.

But these benefits only come with investments of financial and technical resources, which are often scarce in poorer countries. Yet demand is growing for goods and services that encompass sustainability attributes. As the authors in this issue of International Trade Forum make clear, businesses, institutions and organizations are moving ahead with sustainable procurement commitments.

On the other hand, such commitments are being tangled up in a complex web of overlapping sustainability standards, codes and sourcing policies. Furthermore, certification costs are increasing and market inefficiencies are bound to result. At the same time, the private or voluntary nature of these initiatives can be a strength, fostering innovation and more agile responses to sustainability imperatives such as climate change and workers’ rights. What can we do given this highly complex and fast-changing landscape? At ITC, we believe there is a need to preserve the dynamic nature of sustainable standards, but at the same time make sure that these initiatives live up to the true meaning of sustainability. We need to work towards greater harmonisation as well as transparency.

To foster such efforts, at the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 2015, the UN Global Compact, Global Standard 1 (GS1) and ITC unveiled the Blue Number initiative, a global registry for sustainable farmers. Setting out to help achieve Global Goal number 2, the initiative (which is further explained on pages 14-15) aims to promote more sustainable agriculture and better linkages in value chains.

The Blue Number initiative is just one of many innovative steps that we are taking together with our partners to support more sustainable trade and production. In this issue of Trade Forum, several of our partners set out the measures they are implementing.

At ITC, we are committed to continue developing tools, projects and networks to achieve the goals of more and – and more sustainable – trade. Transparent, harmonized and sustainable trade practices do indeed matter to everyone.