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KU Leuven: Sustainable Trade

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Critical interdisciplinary introduction on how to make international trade and global value chains more sustainable from the Global South to the Global North, with a focus on the contribution of voluntary sustainability standards.

10 weeks
2–3 hours per week
Progress at your own speed
Optional upgrade available

About this course

Skip About this course

International trade is a strong engine for poverty reduction, employment creation, innovation, and many other benefits. The important role of international trade for development is also recognized in the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda. According to this Agenda, societies around the world need to achieve 17 goals and above 150 sustainability targets by 2030.

However, trade can also significantly contribute to sustainability challenges, such as climate change, deforestation, human rights abuses, and many other issues.

Against this backdrop, several initiatives have been developed to make international trade more sustainable.

In this MOOC, you will learn more about what international trade is, how it has grown and evolved, and how it is structured around Global Value Chains. You will gain insight into what sustainable development is and how international trade affects it, but also how trade can contribute to achieving sustainability goals. You will acquire knowledge about the different trade instruments that can be used to improve sustainability.

In particular, this MOOC will focus on the role of voluntary sustainability standards (VSS), the systems behind the labels that we encounter on products we buy daily, such as Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, or the Forest Stewardship Council. VSS have become important market-based tools to make international trade more sustainable. In this MOOC, you will learn more about what VSS are, how they emerged, and how they work. You will also learn to think about the effectiveness of VSS both in terms of their adoption and in terms of impact. You will gain insight into where and how VSS are adopted across different units of analysis, and what motivates or hinders different actors to adopt them. You will also understand how VSS aims to generate impact on different sustainability dimensions, and how research can be conducted to evaluate VSS impact. You will then learn about the current evidence that is available on VSS impact, and reflect on the main challenges in assessing VSS impact. You will also become aware of the interactions between VSS and public policy, and will critically reflect on their future as instruments for trade governance.

Learn more about sustainable trade through videos from academic experts, interactive exercises and discussions, online readings, webinars, and interviews with professionals in the field.

Course created with support from

Leuven Centre for Global Governance StudiesVVSBelgiumVLIR-UOSFWO

At a glance

  • Language: English
  • Video Transcript: English
  • Associated programs:
  • Associated skills: Innovation, Sustainability, Research, Sustainable Development, Public Policies, International Trade, Poverty Reduction, Sustainability Standards

What you'll learn

Skip What you'll learn
  • Understand how international trade works and what global value chains are.
  • Acquire in-depth knowledge of what sustainable development is, why it is important, and what the challenges are to achieve it.
  • Become aware of how globalization, international trade and sustainable development are interrelated and appreciate the key importance of international trade to contribute to peace, security, development and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Gain insight into the different ways in which trade governance can deal with sustainable development.
  • Obtain in-depth knowledge of voluntary sustainability standards (VSS), also called eco-labels or certification schemes, as an important tool for global trade governance.
  • Grasp the emergence and evolution of VSS and gain insight into how VSS set and enforce sustainability standards.
  • Learn how VSS differ in their design and how this influences their credibility.
  • Become aware of where and to what extent VSS are used and how this varies across countries and time, and understand the motivations and barriers for the adoption of VSS.
  • Explore the pathways through which VSS aim to generate impact on different sustainability dimensions.
  • Acquaint yourself with the different research approaches and designs to study the impact of VSS, understand their respective strengths and weaknesses, and learn how to interpret research results.
  • Understand how VSS as private governance instruments are integrated into public policies.

Module 1: Introduction to Trade

  • Understand what international trade is, why it is important, how it has grown, how it has changed in nature, and what Global Value Chains are.

Module 2: Trade and Sustainable Development

  • Acquire knowledge of what sustainable development means, how sustainability issues relate to international trade, and what role international trade can play to achieve sustainable development.

Module 3: Trade Instruments for Sustainable Development

  • Gain insight into the different trade instruments that can be used to address sustainability issues, including preferential trade agreements, bilateral trade agreements and standards, and understand the role of the World Trade Organization in governing international trade for sustainability.

Module 4: Voluntary Sustainability Standards

  • Understand what voluntary sustainability standards are, how and why they emerged, what they aim to achieve, and how they set standards.

Module 5: How VSS work

  • Gain in-depth knowledge of how VSS work, in particular how they ensure conformity with their standards through audits and complaint systems, and critically reflect on their credibility as governance tools for sustainability.

Module 6: Effectiveness of VSS: Adoption

  • Understand how VSS effectiveness can be approached, and gain insight on their adoption as a first dimension of effectiveness. Delve into the extent to which VSS are adopted across different units of analysis, and understand the motives and barriers for VSS adoption.

Module 7: Effectiveness of VSS: Measuring Impacts

  • Explore the second dimension of VSS effectiveness: their impact on the ground. Learn about the pathways through which VSS aim to generate impact, how research on VSS impacts has been conducted, the different research designs that are used to assess VSS impacts, and delve into some examples of impact studies.

Module 8: Effectiveness of VSS: Sustainability Impacts

  • Learn more about the currently available evidence on VSS impact along the different sustainability dimensions, get acquainted with databases on VSS impact studies, and reflect on the main issues and challenges in assessing VSS impact.

Module 9: VSS in Public Policy

  • Gain insight into how VSS interact with other policy instruments with a focus on public regulations, trade policy, public procurement, due diligence and economic development measures, and reflect on the future of VSS as instruments for sustainable trade.

Module 10: Final exam

  • Test your newly acquired knowledge on sustainable trade in a final exam, comprising of a quiz and short essay.

This course is part of Global Sustainability Governance Professional Certificate Program

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Expert instruction
3 skill-building courses
Progress at your own speed
6 months
2 - 4 hours per week

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