2023 TSD Forum: Global civil society shares views and solutions to make sustainable trade a winning approach

In its capacity as the home of civil society, the EESC welcomed participants from several developing countries to the 2023 Civil Society Forum on Trade and Sustainable Development. Joined by high-level representatives from the EU, the ILO and UNCTAD, civil society speakers openly discussed existing policies and new initiatives, called for a truly inclusive approach and proposed concrete solutions to make trade a driving force for the Just Transition.

The Civil Society Forum on Trade and Sustainable Development (TSD), organised by the EESC's External Relations Section on 14 November 2023, brought together diverse stakeholders from global civil society, the EU institutions and multilateral organisations such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

The Forum served as a platform for open dialogue, offering insights into how trade can promote sustainable development while respecting social and environmental standards. It highlighted the EU's role in global trade and sustainable development, emphasising the importance of multilateral engagement and dialogue.

Maria Martin-Prat, Deputy Director-General of DG Trade, underscored the EU’s proactive and responsive stance: Yes, the EU has listened and is still listening. Implementing CBAM [the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism] and the Deforestation Act is logical from the European Commission's perspective; however, it will affect developing countries. We're ensuring that our policies are compatible and considerate of their impacts.

Bernd Lange, Chair of the European Parliament's International Trade Committee, added depth to this narrative by highlighting the role of civil society: Civil society involvement is crucial. The new perspective of the European Commission on TSD is welcomed, focusing on the environment, social aspects, and strengthening the role of DAGs [Domestic advisory groups].

Celeste Drake, Deputy Director of the ILO, focused on the broader implications of these policies and on the interplay between trade, social standards and decent work: Effective trade policies must integrate enhanced labour standards. It's not just about economic outcomes; it's about ensuring that trade and sustainability develop in tandem for the benefit of all.

The European and multilateral points of view were then critically re-framed by Lebohang Liepollo Pheko, Senior Research Fellow and Political Economist, in the broader context of North-South – and particularly EU-Africa – relations: While the EU's efforts are noted, true partnership means considering Africa's internal diversity and history. Our trade relations should support equitable participation in global value chains and recognise the historical context of our interactions.

Fostering sustainable trade and investment practices

Exchanging views on trade and investment, the participants agreed that more transparent structures and reforms that prioritise environmental and social standards are needed, with a focus on more sustainable trade and investment policies.

Civil society's involvement is crucial in reforming the investor protection framework and creating equitable investment laws.

Caroline Khamati Mugalla, Executive Director of the East Africa Trade Union Confederation, highlighted the integral role of labour standards in trade agreements: Trade unions are striving to bring labour standards to the forefront. The EU's recent initiatives have been a catalyst, urging African governments to integrate these standards into trade and investment practices.

Vicente Francisco Soares, Chairman of the Angola Chamber of Commerce and Industry, drew attention to Africa's need for investments to align with the SDGs, emphasising the importance of a strategy to address poverty and unemployment effectively: Investments should not only contribute to economic growth, but also ensure decent job creation and respect for local communities.

Balancing economic security with sustainable development

The Forum focused on the intersection of economic security and sustainable development in the current geopolitical and technological landscapes, which are reshaping global supply chains and their resilience.

Chantal Line Carpentier from UNCTAD, stressed the crucial role of trade in achieving the Paris Agreement's objectives and the need for a systematic approach to ensure a just transition. She added: Multilateralism and the need for governments to step in to address the economic, social and sustainability aspects of trade are of paramount importance.

Representatives from the mining sector in Canada and Zimbabwe advocated "enhanced bilateral and multilateral cooperation to promote best practices and enforceability of agreements".

The Due Diligence Challenge

Discussing the due diligence challenge and the EU's role in imposing standards, participants agreed that as a corporate responsibility tool, due diligence must be practical for SMEs and must take into consideration the unique challenges in developing countries.

Heidi Hautala, Vice-President of the European Parliament, emphasised the EU's need for an integrated approach: The EU should act more cohesively, especially concerning the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive and related policies like the regulation against deforestation and the proposed ban on products from forced labour.

She also added that EU delegations should engage more actively with stakeholders to explain and implement these policies effectively.

The Forum highlighted civil society's pivotal role in steering trade towards sustainable and equitable outcomes. Emphasising collaborative, inclusive dialogue, it called for a united approach to forge trade practices that respect both the socio-environmental standards and the livelihoods of local communities worldwide.


2023 TSD Forum: Global civil society shares views and solutions to make sustainable trade a winning approach