5d. Sustainable Value Chains and Trade

Track chairs:

Roberto Merli. Roma Tre University, Italy. roberto.merli@uniroma3.it

Valerie Nelson. Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich, London, United Kingdom. valairn@ntlworld.com

Goals and objectives of the track:

Market-based mechanisms for social and environmental governance are on the rise: from certification, to direct procurement, to distribution channels involving the base of the pyramid, companies are engaging in addressing the most pressing societal and environmental issues through their value chains.

These practices of self-governance originally relied upon the organizing capacities, field experience and collaborative efforts of front-runner companies and globally acting NGOs, while governments have been on the side-line (Vermeulen and Kok, 2012). More recently new forms of concerted market-NGO-government strategies have been successfully implemented. Some companies and relevant actors are currently looking beyond certification to other kinds of interventions such as, direct sourcing trading, corporate own brand initiatives and Public-Private Partnerships for more intensive programming and engagement with a wider set of stakeholders, often in a landscape area (Nelson et al, 2018; Nelson and Philips 2018). Companies are also redefining their relationships with governments to produce better outcomes and transformations within their industries (Lambin et al. 2014). Companies have made zero-deforestation and other sustainability commitments and are now seeking to implement implementing in-house sustainability programs that are based on, complement or sometimes replace more traditional certification programs.

These recent innovations have recently been termed ‘global market transitions' as they relate to new governance relationships and efforts to address systemic change in markets (Nelson et al, 2017). Research is needed which teases out these new forms of governance of landscapes and value chains, the role of the private sector, multi-stakeholder processes, issues of land rights, and the effectiveness of new sustainable business and investment models in catalysing sustainable land-based development.

To understand the effectiveness of voluntary standards and other sustainability innovations in global supply chains, there is a need for more learning and impact assessment. Despite an increase in the evidence base, there still remain many gaps, because of the diversity of locations in which VSS are being adopted and the rapid expansion into new products, and also due to the identification of new sustainability issues requiring attention, such as gender, water stewardship, modern slavery, human rights, ethical recruitment, smallholder land rights, inclusive growth in agribusiness development etc. Further, learning and impact studies need to assess which kinds of smart governance mixes and collaborative approaches are effective under what conditions, and whether they too have limits. The development of a form of ‘meta'-governance, including new approaches by governments, combining public policy strategies with the demonstrated virtues of self-governance is increasingly seen by the community of practice, researchers and policy-makers as being the way forwards. Critical research evidence and insights are needed to understand whether such a meta-governance system can evolve and be effective in securing social and environmental sustainability.

We welcome any research or critical review paper addressing one or more of the issues suggested here.


Key questions arise as to how capable these global market transitions are in helping modern societies overcome the challenges of climate change, biodiversity collapse, and extreme
poverty. We are open to papers addressing a wide set of questions related to this field of practice:

  • Are voluntary sustainability standards and other associated corporate operations and supply chain sustainability responses fit for purpose for achieving a circular and fair global economy? What new market-based mechanisms are emerging to address corporate sustainability performance? What further innovations or scaling up is needed in terms of mechanisms and approaches?
  • What evidence is available regarding the effectiveness of existing and newer approaches? How far can such approaches overcome systemic challenges?
  • What is the role of government, of the private sector and of other development actors, in facilitating sustainable market transitions?
  • How is global trade changing and how does this influence the effectiveness of market-based initiatives for sustainability? (e.g. What are the implications of increasing south-south trade and consumption in Asia? And what does the growth in domestic and regional value chains mean for sustainable production?
  • What are new technologies changing business and supply chains and what do they offer in terms of facilitating worker voice, enhancing transparency and traceability, and tackling sustainability and what are the challenges?


References used:

Nelson, V., X. Rueda, W.J.V. Vermeulen (2018) Challenges and Opportunities for the Sustainability Transition in Global Trade (introduction) Business Strategy and the Environment, Vol. 27, (forthcoming)

Nelson, V., D. Phillips (2018) Sector, landscape or rural transformations? Exploring the limits and potential of agricultural sustainability initiatives through a cocoa case study, Business Strategy and the Environment, Vol. 27, (forthcoming)

Lambin, E. F., Meyfroidt, P., Rueda, X., Blackman, A., Börner, J., Cerutti, P.O. & Walker, N. F. (2014). Effectiveness and synergies of policy instruments for land use governance in tropical regions. Global Environmental Change, 28, 129-140.

Vermeulen, W. J. V., & Kok, M. T. J. (2012). Government interventions in sustainable supply chain governance: Experience in Dutch front-running cases. Ecological economics, 83, 183-196.