Environmental standards

Background: motivating businesses to engage in more environmental protection

A Chinese worker is checking circuit boards. Copyright: bpa, FaßbenderIn many industrial firms in devel­op­ing countries sub­stances that are harmful to the environ­ment and to health are not correctly used or disposed of. Many of these countries’ inhabitants have to suffer the direct consequences – for example contaminated drinking water. Damage to the environment can be so severe that development in the affected countries is inhibited in the long term.

Environmental protection measures and environmentally friendly production processes promote development and increase competitiveness in the long term – but they cost money and reduce a company's earnings in the short term. Voluntarily meeting the cost of such measures and the resulting general benefits is still considered "uneconomic" by many businesses. That can change if market forces are used to encourage businesses to do more to protect the environment. What is needed is an enabling environment that ensures that polluters pay for the environmental damage they cause. Environmental standards are an important element of such an enabling environment. Their purpose is to promote sustainable develop­ment and thus to preserve our natural resources, not least for future generations.

In order to protect the environment and human health and to conserve resources, environmental standards place specific requirements on production and the production chain right through to disposal. Climate-friendly, ecological requirements are increasingly being included throughout the product life cycle and bringing long-term competitive advantages.

Developing and giving legal force to environmental standards

Environmental standards are the outcome of a dynamic process based on scientific, technical, economic, political and social perceptions and values.

Environmental standards acquire legal force through government regulation at national level or through intergovernmental and international agreements. They may set limit values, for example, or mandatory labelling requirements. Environmental standards can also be established by voluntary agreement, for example by organic farmers.

While compliance with government regulations is obligatory, non-mandatory standards serve as recommendations for action or as assessment guidelines.


Disembarkation of tropical woods in the harbour of Jakarta, Indonesia. Copyright: Photothek.netIncreasingly, developing coun­tries have to apply environ­mental standards in order to be competitive in global trade. Failure to do so may mean that environ­mental standards become trade barriers to the export of their goods, particularly processed goods. Many developing countries lack the financial and logistical resources and the information necessary to the development and implementation of standardisation and labelling processes. The investment necessary for sustainable production is a particular challenge for small and medium enterprises.


The market for sustainable products from developing countries is still relatively small, but it is growing fast. In addition to the obvious advantages to producers, positive social and environ­mental effects can also be observed according to an independent evaluation commissioned by the BMZ on the "Introduction of voluntary social and ecological standards in developing countries".

In combination with social standards, environmental guidelines have significantly improved the lives and working conditions of formerly vulnerable people. Examples include reduced health and safety risks in the workplace and better social cohesion in rural communities and cooperatives.

The protection of natural resources and ecosystems, for example by forgoing the use of pesticides, cutting back on water and energy consumption or applying responsible liquid and solid waste management practices has a positive knock-on effect in many other areas.

Of particular importance for development policy is the fact that environmental standards make a contribution to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The reduction of global poverty (MDG 1), the right to education (MDG 2), the equality of women (MDG 3) and the protection of the environment (MDG 7) as well as other matters of concern to the international commu­nity are promoted when environmental standards are applied.

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