Experts call for a smart mix of regulation and voluntary initiatives and civil society involvement to achieve sustainable development goals and sustainable global value chains

The implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a joint responsibility of civil society, EU and the member States' authorities, as well as the private sector. This was one of the main conclusions of the high level conference on SDGs and initiatives for Sustainable Global Value Chains co-organised on 30 October 2018 by the Netherlands' Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the Dutch Social and Economic Council, and the EESC. Experts also agreed that a combination of regulatory measures and incentives to voluntary initiatives is crucial to create a level-playing field and scale-up national initiatives

Representatives from businesses, trade unions, representatives from all areas of organised civil society , Member States and public institutions from all across Europe discussed the best ways to encourage and ensure responsible business conduct and boost the achievement of the SDGs. The opening session was co-chaired by Luca Jahier, President of the EESC; Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission; and Sigrid Kaag, Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation of the Netherlands, who agreed on the importance of sustainable development and the essential role of the civil society in the monitoring of the implementation of policies for pursuing responsible business conduct.

The conference was structured in four parallel workshops dealing with global value chains and corporate social responsibility in the textile sector, the banking sector, the extractive industries and the agro-food sector. These workshops were addressed to the representatives of the civil society and were aimed to identify and share successful experiences and explore which initiatives could be scaled up to EU-level.

One of the most developed points was the dichotomy between voluntary multi-stakeholder approaches to responsible business conduct and binding regulation. The general consensus was that both approaches are equally needed. According to Joseph Wilde, senior researcher at OECD Watch, legislation is essential to ensure that minimum common standards are respected he also added that incentives can help small and medium-size enterprises to adhere to these principles without being burdened with additional tasks or costs. Francis West, Director of Shift Business Learning Program, pointed out that there must be more conversation around the benefit of the different initiatives, both voluntary and regulatory, in terms of complementarity and that frontrunners companies should be rewarded.

The need of globalization of social and labour rights was also discussed. Many participants expressed their concern for the fact that human rights have not always been duly prioritized by the EU in its trade agreements with third countries. Along the same lines, Peter Schmidt, chair of the EESC Sustainable Development Observatory, raised the issue of imbalances in the complex framework of global value chains in the food-sector, where a wide range of issues from both the farmers' and the consumers' perspective must be taken into consideration.

Alberto Mazzola, chair of the International Trade Follow-up Committee of the EESC, closed the conference expressing his view that international trade will substantially change in the upcoming years. Not only SDGs will become an essential part of it, but also the real content of trade agreements will be different, with a growing importance of data with respect to goods. EU trade policy is a pivotal tool to promote SDGs beyond Europe and further debates will then be necessary to discuss the added value of broader monitoring of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) by organised civil society. Mazzola announced that the EESC is working on two own-initiative opinions on this topic that will probably be presented in the January plenary session: one will regard precisely the  reforming of the WTO to adapt to developments in world trade , and the second will focus on the civil society monitoring mechanisms, the so-called Domestic Advisory Groups, in FTAs