Time for a shift: making trade sustainable

making trade sustainable
  • Trade promotion agencies can tip the balance toward business resilience and ‘good trade’.

Businesses everywhere are facing supply chain woes, while feeling impacts from the pandemic in their lives. The supply chain crisis is sparking a rise of inflation in many countries, as firms seek new supply sources and new ways to ship and source goods in unstable markets.

Small firms with fewer reserves feel the pinch most. The ripple-effect is tremendous, as they represent most businesses in national economies everywhere.

We must do all we can to make these firms more resilient in times of crisis.

Rather than go back to normal or move to a new normal, there may be no ‘normal’ for these firms. Climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and food insecurity crises will continue to challenge companies in the years ahead.

This is where national trade promotion organisations can tip the balance toward prosperous societies. Countries seek ownership of their future – yet are more connected than ever. National trade promotion organisations are unsung champions, building businesses that create jobs and bring hope for generations to come. They have local knowledge, connections and experience to help people start businesses, grow and compete in the wider world.

But not just any trade. We need ‘good trade’ that is truly sustainable. This way, when shocks come businesses and communities won’t be hit hard. This requires a sea change. Trade based on commodity exports, foreign investment, or short-term supplier contracts in global markets is not enough.

The pandemic has shown us that we must have every interest in supporting ‘good trade’ – trade that brings women, young entrepreneurs and vulnerable groups into value chains; focuses on non-traditional exports; strengthens regional ties; empowers the transition to a green economy; and makes micro, small and mid-sized firms more resilient to crises yet to come.

In Ghana, the reference to sustainable trade or a green economy is still a somewhat novel concept to young businesses. It therefore falls within the mandate of agencies such as the Ghana Export Promotion Authority to break down these conversations, enable MSMEs to buy into the concept and adapt these practices for business continuity and success.

During the pandemic and in ensuing months, many small businesses spent their time profitably by engaging in capacity-building programmes. At the Ghana Export Promotion Authority for instance, Trade for Sustainable Development modules taught businesses to implement green business practices by targetting resource efficiency, circular economy, sustainability standards, e-commerce and access to finance.

The overall objective is empowering businesses to compete effectively in international markets, easing their participation in sustainable global value chains as they better understand and implement sustainable trade issues.

What’s true in Ghana is true in other countries. Firms do better when they have access to networks and market information from business support organisations, according to research from the International Trade Centre for its SME Competitiveness Outlook. Countries with such organisations have more exporters than those who don’t. What’s more, firms engaged with business support organisations are three times as likely to export.

This service is important, as firms that export generally do better than those who don’t, according to ITC’s COVID-19 business impact surveys conducted in 16 countries. Firms that export were twice as likely to create new or customised products to cope with the pandemic as those who did not.

Clearly, trade promotion agencies are providing useful services. It is important for them to come together and compare what works best. That is why the International Trade Centre and Ghana Export Promotion Authority are co-sponsoring the World Trade Promotion Organisations Conference and Awards, which takes place in Accra on Tuesday and Wednesday 17 and 18 May.

To make ‘good trade’ happen, solutions must be more digital, sustainable and partnership-based. That’s why the conference will recognise national trade development agencies with global awards for such initiatives. The Ghana Export Promotion Authority, in fact, is a past-winner of these awards.

These unsung champions need their stories heard so that countries everywhere can be inspired to make the shift to sustainable trade.

Ms. Pamela Coke-Hamilton is Executive Director of the International Trade Centre, an agency of the United Nations and World Trade Organisation.

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