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Both direct and indirect costs have a limited influence on the society, because it is the user of a voluntary sustainability standard who is aimed to pay [ 60 ]. Regarding the costs of following legally binding sustainability criteria, it can be suggested that these costs correspond to the common patterns of the establishment and implementation of a legal framework.

This would include costs of creating a legal framework with sustainability criteria; costs of building up an administrative apparatus to enforce, supervise, and control the fulfillment of the sustainability criteria; costs of the evaluation of the achieved results and reconsideration; as well as costs of sanctions, if the sustainability criteria have not been fulfilled as they should. A large amount of costs, as in the case with voluntary sustainability standards, would be laid on the producers, distributors, and suppliers of the sustainable product.

These groups of the actors should bear the costs of fulfilling the sustainability criteria and of proving compliance with them.

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Taking the EU legal framework for transport biofuels as an example, its costs for the society include in the first place costs of the EU and national governments to create and maintain efficiently functioning legal frameworks with sustainability criteria, as well as costs of subsidies that the EU grants [ 61 ].

Following the EU sustainability criteria is expected to increase the costs of biofuel production [ 61 ], partially because certain administrative and technical barriers might need to be overcome. Contradictions with the WTO regulations and uncertainty about independent auditing as a control mechanism are examples of administrative barriers for the implementation of the EU sustainability criteria that would require additional costs. Different groups of actors can be distinguished, who can be responsible for the creation of sustainability criteria and support of their implementation.

Among them there are 1 international institutions, 2 states and their governments, 3 independent bodies established by states, 4 NGOs, 5 producers, 6 users, and 7 research institutions. Potential contributions of these groups are explained below. International institutions possess wide possibilities to establish and support sustainability criteria for different industries. There is an opinion that national governments should support sustainability initiatives and the establishment of sustainability criteria.

Environmental costs of a product should be internalized in market prices. NGOs should be involved in monitoring activities. Minimum prices should be used to guarantee a fair income and care for the environment [ 62 ].

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Calls to combine efforts from international and national institutions have been made more and more explicit. Hopes have been expressed that this approach has the potential to neutralize negative effects of global free trade and rein in corporate power [ 63 ]. As an example, the Clean Development Mechanism CDM that is an international initiative requires an explicit confirmation of the state, which hosts a project, that its development will contribute to the sustainability of the state's territory.

An approval of the host state cannot, however, replace the agreed sustainability criteria. Risks of increased bureaucracy and decision-making opportunities for developing countries with weakened governance need be assessed [ 64 ]. It should be encouraged that independent organizations established by states share their opinions during negotiations on sustainability criteria and later on check to what extent the criteria have been fulfilled.

A supposition has been made that already functioning legal frameworks and voluntary sustainability standards will be interested in getting support from independent organizations established by states, for example, for carrying out certification and control activities [ 65 ]. It has been observed that the role of NGOs, which missions often coincide with the tenets of sustainable products in establishing sustainability standards and eco-labels, is very high.

Warnings should be made against putting much reliance on NGOs only in setting up and supporting sustainability criteria, because NGOs might lack professional knowledge, resources, and contacts with the industry [ 62 , 66 ]. Producing companies may refuse to be transparent about the amount and quality of sustainable products they are supporting, as well as about their production methods [ 67 ].

In these cases, interests of the market and consumers in having clear and concise access to sustainable products and information about them may prevail [ 68 ].

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This position is very questionable, because possibilities of an ordinary user to assess the sustainability of a product or its production methods can be very limited. Contribution of research institutions and scientists is very important, because they provide the necessary scientific ground to the content of sustainability criteria and assessment of their fulfillment. The importance for different groups of actors to collaborate, as well as transparency and consumers' access to information about the fulfillment of the sustainability criteria, should be highlighted.

More research on these issues is needed. In this section, a list is provided, which includes factors that facilitate the implementation and use of sustainability criteria through the participation of different groups of the involved actors. The role and possible impacts of each factor are not obvious and should be analyzed further. The list has initially been made for bioenergy, but it can be generalized and used for other products, where the achievement of sustainability criteria is necessary.

Participation of the industry, especially large-scale producers, and international standardization and accreditation organizations;. NGOs should be involved in the negotiation process and monitoring activities, though their lack of professionalism should be thought through;. Low barriers of entry for small-scale producers and producers from developing countries, including costs and knowledge, enhance their participation;.

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Monitoring should include regular field inspections and not based on paper checks only;. The competition and transparency within the co-existing legal frameworks and voluntary sustainability standards, and the content of their sustainability criteria should be supervised;.

Gradual standardization and certification procedures improve the involvement of industry;. Linking governmental subsidies and price premiums to the fulfillment of sustainability criteria safeguards financial incentives;. Anonymous trade should be diminished. This will improve the terms of trade for producers and create transparency for consumers and other interested actors; and. A perfect model that governs how to create, enforce, and implement legal frameworks and voluntary sustainability standards with sustainability criteria does not seem to exist.

Sustainability policies and projects are still not widely used or, regarding some products, can be absent [ 62 ]. A suggestion has been made to encourage producers to consult with governments, research institutes, and NGOs [ 69 ], with the purpose to arrive to a shared solution through collaboration. Standard setting processes can be conceptualized as new forms of contract where a state, rather than being directly involved between the parties, provides a form of basic guarantee, while NGOs and companies are in charge of making up the agreements [ 70 ].

Voluntary sustainability standards are usually initiated and developed by large-scale producers and NGOs. The experience in the coffee sector can serve as an example here. The advantage of this approach is that the non-obligatory involvement of these groups of the actors does not limit trade. Members of the bodies that answer for the enforcement and fulfillment of sustainability criteria can suggestively include NGOs, producers, scientists, and consumers.

Obligations of these management bodies can embrace the establishment of sustainability criteria, assessment of their fulfillment and updating, development and improvement of indicators, and control of environmental sustainability and claims, as well as promotion, harmonization, and accreditation of the co-existing sustainability standards [ 71 ].

Certain independence of the management bodies in their decision-making is desirable. The more we research the notion of sustainability criteria and critical issues, which their practical implementation and use involve, the better our efforts can be to improve them. It is very possible that there is no perfect practical solution for using sustainability criteria in legal frameworks and voluntary sustainability standards, which usually co-exist and may overlap.

In the article, the existing definitions of sustainability criteria have been explored, the notion of indicators for sustainability criteria has been investigated, and the issue of costs for following sustainability criteria has been researched. It has been discussed what groups of actors can be responsible for setting and supporting sustainability criteria.

The main focus has been put on the function of sustainability criteria as a tool to promote sustainable products and their sustainable production. Knowing that these issues can be researched from the perspective of different disciplines, the perspective of law and incorporation of sustainability criteria in legal constructions have been chosen.

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  5. Several important reflections and conclusions have been made. It can be presupposed that voluntary sustainability standards and similar measures, like eco-labels, should play an important role in addressing the issues that obligatory sustainability criteria are not able to deal with efficiently. However, non-obligatory means to promote and safeguard sustainability have their own limitations. Voluntary sustainability standards can lack efficiency to influence circumstances and developments that take place on a level higher than a company level.

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    For example, not many voluntary sustainability standards can do without setting criteria for the production effects on climate, though these effects can hardly be satisfactorily measured at the level of an average producer. In order for a legal framework or a voluntary sustainability standard with sustainability criteria to function as it has been aimed for, the content of the sustainability criteria should fulfill certain requirements.

    Thus, the criteria should be understandable. It should be possible to implement and supervise them, as well as to have control of their fulfillment.


    The involved actors should be willful to follow the criteria and the whole policy package, to which the criteria refer. The efficiency of a legal framework or a voluntary sustainability standard with sustainability criteria cannot be assessed according to the number of the sustainability criteria included. A clear difference should be made between theoretically elaborated lists of sustainability criteria, which ought to exist, and sustainability criteria aimed for practical implementation.

    The latter group should be less extensive and complicated.