Voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) have emerged as one of the main tools used to articulate, encourage and enforce sustainable and ethical practices in global value chains. With this study we explore the nature and evolution of VSS and assess their potential contribution to gender equality and women’s empowerment (SDG 5). The purpose of the study is to enable policymakers in developing and emerging economies to identify opportunities to engage with VSS initiatives as a means to deliver on gender commitments while also promoting trade and economic development.
Although VSS vary greatly in terms of their scope, content, use and form of governance, they often reference internationally agreed rights and principles and require compliance with national laws and regulations. Research has found that VSS can stimulate improvements in a range of areas, including environmentally-friendly agricultural practices, higher prices and incomes for farmers, and improved terms and conditions for workers. However, VSS outcomes are complex, context dependent and not universally positive. Standards and auditing commonly fail to reach the most vulnerable workers, and are less effective for dealing with complex issues like discrimination and freedom of association.
The historical limitations of VSS have prompted a raft of improvements and new approaches in recent years. Improvements related to gender are also taking place, partly because gender has risen up business and VSS agendas. Gender mainstreaming and gender-specific criteria and objectives are becoming more common in VSS systems, along with gender-responsive auditing and risk assessment methodologies. However, VSS alone cannot be expected to address all the structural causes of gender inequality. In this context, a key contribution of VSS may be establishing criteria and norms for a gender-equitable and inclusive environment for workers and producers in global value chains, and providing hard evidence (data) of the systemic issues that need to be addressed by states, businesses and civil society in order for women to participate in the global economy on equal terms with men.
We conclude the study with a set of recommendations for policymakers in developing and emerging economies.