Trade, investment, development: the EU perspective on voluntary assurance schemes

8 December 2015
ITC News
Ensuring sustainability schemes for the good of producers and consumers remains a priority for the European Union, writes Marc Venheukelen.

Sustainable development is at the core of European Union (EU) action both at home and around the word. This is a principle enshrined in the provisions of the EU Treaty and an objective guiding all of our different policies – whether we are working on the internal market, on our relations with partner countries or on global matters.

Trade and investment policy is certainly part of this picture. We want to make the most of the opportunities presented by the tools we develop and implement to support free and fair trade to foster sustainable development within the EU, in our partner countries and the wider world.


This means designing public policies that ensure that economic growth brought by increased trade and investment goes hand in hand with social justice, high labour standards and sustainable environmental practices. We also need to integrate in our action the awareness that trade and investment practices favouring sustainable development arise, not only from government action, but from a shift in the marketplace towards more sustainable products.

In this context, voluntary non-governmental sustainability assurance schemes – such as fair and ethical trade schemes – can be effective in fostering sustainable and inclusive growth by promoting the production, trade, and consumption of sustainable products. They are led by non-governmental actors and bring them toghether:

  • ƒƒfor producers, participation can be an effective means to differentiate their product and gain price premiums,
  • ƒƒfor traders, these initiatives provide a way to integrate societal developments in their business strategies,
  • for consumers, they support informed purchasing decisions.

The EU takes the view that a key benefit of non-governmental sustainability schemes rests in the fact they are a market mechanism developed by stakeholders. Still, this does not mean that policymakers cannot be involved: public authorities can also have a role to play in promoting these initiatives and the EU is engaged in doing so.

Focus on this topic is not new. The European Commission issued its first communication on fair-trade schemes in 1999 and followed up on it through both dedicated approaches* and as part of its broader trade policy strategy**.

The EU is now working on renewing its trade and investment strategy to make it relevant to tackling new economic realities. It wants to stay engaged on sustainable production and consumption and move forward with promoting non-governmental sustainability schemes. In doing so it will be important to build on efforts so far – efforts that have covered a broad range of areas from policy initatives to the inclusion of dedicated provisions in our trade agreements to the implementation of projects on the ground.


The EU also has a long-standing partnership with the International Trade Centre (ITC) in the area of sustainability schemes. Since 2011 the EU has provided support to the Trade for Sustainable Development project to increase awareness on existing voluntary sustainability standards. This has followed two strands of action: supporting the mapping of existing standards so to make it more comprehensive and easily accesible; and reaching out to producers in developing countries to strenghten their capacity to participate in such schemes.

As we move forward, continuing to improve the flow of information on fair and ethical trade and other non-governmental sustainability schemes for both producers and EU consumers will remain important. It will ensure that EU trade and investment policy facilitates the connection between the supply and demand sides for sustainable products.

As EU Ambassador to the World Trade Organization, I look forward to continuing working together on sustainability schemes with Geneva-based international organizations active in this area, including ITC, as part of the EU’s engagement to support trade and investment policies that foster sustainable development.