Sustainability Standards and Public Governance

Sustainability Standards and Public Governance

Published: November 2012

Authors: Halina Ward and Mai-Lan Ha

Pages: 42

Sustainability Standards and Public Governance


An emerging theme of the framing project from its inception in 2009 was the growing awareness of the significance and complexity of the interactions between voluntary, non-governmental sustainability standards and national and international governance, raising fundamental questions about standards development, use, legitimacy and sustainability.

It became increasingly clear as the project progressed that understanding, and if possible resolving these questions could be a pre-requisite to achieving broad support for sustainability standards from policy makers and many civil society organizations.

In response, The Pacific Institute carried out a comprehensive review of the literature on the subject and commissioned the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development to analyse the issues and make preliminary recommendations.


a) Literature Review

The literature review by Pacific Institute Research Associate Mai-Lan Ha takes a critical look at the literature that has developed over the last twenty years or so, covering the relationship between private voluntary social and environmental standards (PVSES) and public governance.

The review considers:

  • the origins of PVSES and their interactions with public policy, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and non-state market driven instruments;
  • the implications of the use of PVSES in the developing world;
  • what an ‘ideal’ relationship between private governance and public policy should be;
  • the role of PVSES in the specific context of international trade and the World Trade Organization (WTO);
  • the literature around PVSES and democracy, looking at both internal and external elements of PVSES and democracy.

The complete review can be downloaded at the bottom of this page.


b) Analysis and Development of ‘Principles for Standards-Setters’

The review and analysis by the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development builds on the literature review and explores the relationship between PVSES and public governance in greater detail.

The review finds that the standards community has paid significant attention to the ideas of ‘filling governance gaps’ with standards, and then ensuring that the standards themselves are governed ‘well’ or in line with ideas of ‘good governance’.

However, the rapid evolution and take-up of environmental and social standards in the marketplace itself has knock-on effects upon the behaviour of and policy options available to governments, and impacts more widely on public governance. This aspect of a ‘governance framing’ of standards is currently very underdeveloped.

The paper proposes that consideration of ‘good governance of standards’, ‘standards asgovernance’ and ‘standards to fill governance gaps’ are not sufficient on their own to ensure that standards do not inadvertently weaken ‘good public governance’.  Additional attention is needed.

Perhaps the key, innovative output of the work is the development of eleven suggested ‘principles’ to guide the sustainability standards movement in its interactions with formal governmental institutions.  These principles are highly preliminary.  The intention is that, if followed, they would help ensure that sustainability standards strengthen, and do not undermine, good public governance.

The eleven draft principles are presented below, with the hope that they may seed further discussion.  The complete paper can be downloaded from the bottom of this page.


Eleven DRAFT Principles for Voluntary Sustainability Standards and Public Policy

Overarching principles:

  • Respect the unique roles of governments and states
  • Engage public sector actors
  • Support sharing of information and resources with public sector actors
  • Build on existing public sector and international norms
  • Assess and review the range of public sector implications and relationships


  • Principle 1 – Do no harm: to public sector or government capacity to address the environmental and social issues addressed by the VSES
  • Principle 2 – Minimise conflict: where conflicts arise between proposed public policy or legislative requirements in host countries or supplier countries, seek to understand why and act to minimise conflict wherever possible
  • Principle 3 – Prior notification: where it is not possible to achieve the objectives of the VSES without creating conflict with laws in countries and markets where the VSES will take effect, ensure that affected suppliers, organisations and public sector actors are given ample prior notice of your VSES and an opportunity to engage in dialogue on alternative approaches
  • Principle 4 – Advisory roles on international law: Develop rules of procedure to ensure that government participants have an ‘advisory’ rather than ‘veto’ or ‘consensus’ role on issues which raise questions about interpretation of international law


  • Principle 5 – Ensure that public sector actors are offered opportunities to engage in the VSES in ways that are appropriate to the VSES under consideration whilst respecting their unique roles and responsibilities


  • Principle 6 – Explore how best to link monitoring and assurance mechanisms associated with your VSES to existing public sector monitoring and enforcement activities in markets where your VSES will take effect.


  • Principle 7 – Draw on intergovernmentally agreed principles and norms where these fall within the scope of the VSES
  • Principle 8 – Seek opportunities to maximise alignment and synergies between VSESs and complementary public policy goals and norms in countries where the VSESs will take effect

Assess and review

  • Principle 9 – Assess why public sector actors and/or international organisations are engaging in the development of your VSES, understand their remit, and assess which have chosen not to engage (and why)
  • Principle 10 – Assess and share with affected parties the range of public sector implications, relationships and impacts of your VSES
  • Principle 11 – Assess the likelihood that the VSES could be considered a ‘relevant international standard’ for purposes of the rules of the World Trade Organization (including its Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade)


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