Growing influence of international and European law on voluntary private standards for sustainability

Published 18 April 2017

The emergence and proliferation of private product standards on sustainability has been one of the most striking features in global governance in the social and environmental fields. Enrico Partiti, researcher at T.M.C Asser Instituut, shows that voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) are increasingly included in regulatory measures pursuing public policy goals. Such inclusion, Partiti says, gives international and European law powerful mechanisms for influence and control over VSS. He will defend his thesis on this subject at the University of Amsterdam on April 20 2017.

Growing amount of standards
Companies, sectoral associations and multi-stakeholder organisations set and enforce standards defining products and process features in domains ranging from forestry to fisheries, from agricultural products to raw materials, and from textiles to biofuels. Certified goods, as well as Fair trade and animal welfare-compliant products are now ubiquitous in European stores and homes.

VSS are non-mandatory regulatory schemes designed by private bodies with the purpose of addressing, directly or indirectly and by means of third-party certification of products and processes, the social and environmental impact resulting from the production of goods. “As these initiatives do not just represent a market niche but go mainstream, the study of their effects and the possibilities for regulators to intervene in their coordination, influence and review becomes pressing,” according to Partiti. Following the assertion that public authorities should play an increasingly visible role in transnational private regulation by means of directing mechanisms, he examined the interaction between VSS and the rules and meta-rules of European and international economic law regimes. 

WTO and EU
Partiti’s dissertation depicts a complex multi-level system of rules with the potential to apply to VSS and to directly and indirectly affect their substance. For instance, WTO members are under an obligation to ensure that VSS are in compliance with the WTO principles for standards. In line with that, EU competition law has the potential to influence a host of different economic and non-economic effects generated by the schemes. Potentially it could tackle trade barriers, as well as the concerns raised by consumers over standards’ effectiveness and proliferation.

A version of the thesis can be requested to the author at e.partiti@asser.