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How to shape the future of trade together

ITC and ISO strengthen ties to benefit global markets.

As Head of the Trade for Sustainable Development (T4SD) programme at the International Trade Centre (ITC), I fundamentally believe in the power of partnerships. Take, for instance, our partnership with ISO. Over many years, we have enjoyed a fruitful collaboration that has centred on fostering improved trade cooperation, with the aim of helping developing countries compete in global markets. Our joint effort is a response to the increasingly important role that International Standards play as a policy mechanism and as a market tool for trade and sustainable development.

Partnerships are crucial to finding solutions in a rapidly changing world. The volatility of trade regulations, which often differ across jurisdictions, is challenging the established norms around how the path forward may unfold. This is taking its toll on small businesses, causing complexity and confusion amid growing pressures for global compliance.

Collaboration for good

There is a lot that ITC and ISO are doing together. Most recently, we have been working with ISO to reference its sustainable and traceable cocoa standards in our ITC Standards Map portal. The Standards Map centralizes a collection of voluntary sustainability initiatives (i.e. standards and codes of conduct) that cover environmental and social-type criteria. Best-known examples include the Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade. Today, with over 300 initiatives referenced, our Standards Map serves over half a million visitors each year.

What the Standards Map does is provide a comparison of standards with a very granular identification of criteria. So, if I’m an exporter of, let’s say, coffee or cocoa seeking information on a standard applying to certification in my country, I can look it up on the Standards Map and find out what criteria I need to implement.

The cocoa initiative has been a very successful partnership. If we could replicate this collaboration with other key sustainability-related standards, that would be phenomenal. Other key partnerships with ISO include women in trade, quality standards, and ITC also runs an SME Trade Academy that provides online training materials and courses related to trade and market access.

New regulatory trends

Brands and retailers so far have relied on several voluntary standards when sourcing their goods, whether it’s textiles and apparel, agricultural products, electronics or toys. That’s because they want to make sure that what they are sourcing from developing country suppliers is environmentally and socially sustainable. These regulations usually exist outside of national and international law, so voluntary frameworks have sprung up in their place to ensure sustainable practices are being met along the supply chain.

In today’s climate context, governments, particularly in the European Union, are moving towards a mandatory EU system of supply chain due diligence. This is not happening overnight. By 2024/2025, we will see this legislation being enacted, with repercussions for compliance. This places additional burden on exporters, particularly from developing countries, who will need to comply with these sustainability practices to export successfully to different markets. And while small businesses generally understand the need to “go green”, they often lack the technical know-how and financial means to do so.

ISO – an international reference

To ensure that the adherence to laws and regulations doesn’t constitute a barrier to trade, we encourage greater global compliance with International Standards. Recognized internationally for their neutrality, their rigour and their acceptance by all sorts of market partners, ISO standards are fundamental for export success. They provide an excellent means of knowledge transfer, helping developing countries to overcome their skills gaps and become better integrated in the world economy.

At ITC, we are working to align the voluntary sustainability initiatives referenced on our Standards Map platform with future regulations, and having relevant ISO standards in the Standards Map will only improve the situation. More importantly, when new legislation comes into being, we need to be able to help suppliers meet sustainability standards and regulations in a cost-efficient manner.

Whether we succeed in this endeavour very much depends on the bonds we form with like-minded organizations, as these help to broaden the scope of what can be achieved. Partnership for purpose gets to the core of the issue – namely, that we can’t do this alone. We must understand where our strengths lie, then work with partners – such as ISO – that are mutually and strategically beneficial.

There is a lot scope for additional collaboration between ISO and ITC, particularly to help businesses in developing countries harness the promise of sustainable trade. By leveraging ISO standards, we can help millions of businesses meet their buyers’ requirements. It’s only then that truly global market access will be achievable.

Disclaimer: PECB has obtained permission to publish the articles written by ISO.

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