Voluntary Sustainability Standards

Illusions of Progress and a Way Forward

by Ulrich Hoffmann (Author) Arpit Bhutani (Author)
Monographs XVIII, 146 Pages


Sustainability standards, and in particular voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) have become an integral part of facilitating green consumerism and promoting green economy and green growth. While such standards have undoubtedly led to some desirable change in production structures and methods, as well as in improved material, resource and energy efficiency, overall results have remained modest, mostly incremental and far from leading to transformational, sector- or economy-wide changes. It is therefore high time that after some 30 years of increasing use of sustainability standards one takes stock of their achievements and pros and cons. This analysis should however not be confined to a technical review of the progress in improving or perfectioning the standard system and best practice in standard application and use, but primarily focus on a review of the political economy of VSS and their record in reshaping the current largely unsustainable agro-food economy and the situation of farmers. Many, in particular voluntary sustainability standards are now at a crossroads, but instead of realizing the systemic, deep-rooted nature of the crisis and conceiving of much-required reforms most standard advocates continue to focus their activities on improving the functioning of the standard system and emulating or disseminating best standard-compliance practice. Against this background, the book wonders what the illusions and what the reality of VSS have been in recent decades and whether these standards can be made fit for a future, in which sustainability issues are bound to play an even more important and pressing role. As appendix we looked into the relationship between the Corona crisis as one of the many other epidemics which have hit us hard and the future of globalized supply chains, of which VSS are part of.


XVIII, 146
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2021 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XVIII, 146 pp., 8 b/w ill., 2 tables.

Biographical notes

Ulrich Hoffmann (Author) Arpit Bhutani (Author)

Ulrich Hoffmann, a German economist, was a senior lecturer and had a chair on trade and international financial relations at the Institute on Economics for Developing Countries in Berlin before joining the UN secretariat in the mid-1980s. Most of the time, he worked for the secretariat of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Geneva, focusing on production and trade of commodities, issues of sustainable resource management and the transformation of agriculture as well as on the economics of climate change. For many years, he was principal editor of UNCTAD’s regular Trade and Environment Review, one of UNTAD’s flagship publications. After retiring from UNCTAD in 2015 he was a senior associate at the Research Institute on Organic Agriculture and the International Institute for Sustainable Development. Arpit Bhutani has a Master of International Law and Economics from the World Trade Institute of the University of Bern, Switzerland. He worked at United Nations, Geneva as part of the team that prepared and launched the UN Forum on Sustainability Standards. He is also an expert on the circular economy, having worked with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. He is a TEDx speaker and a Huffington Post contributor. Arpit is a serial entrepreneur, handles his 70-year old food processing family business in India, Hind Agro Sales, and now is also co-founder of two circular economy startups in Copenhagen, Circular Innovation Lab and ShopC.


Title: Voluntary Sustainability Standards