The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are an ambitious agenda of the United Nations to develop 17 goals and other specific targets aimed at poverty reduction and building a better world for all. This Agenda agreed by 193 countries came into force the first day of 2016, replacing the Millennium Development Goals. For the coming 15 years the SDGs will try to end hunger, achieve gender equality, improve health services and ensure all children attend school all over de world. The new agenda promotes peaceful and inclusive societies and better jobs, and responds to the environmental challenges of climate change.


The SDGs integrate social, economic and environmental dimensions in order to promote human and economic development. Each goal establishes specific targets to help the implementation of the main goals. The agenda includes some aspects related to peace, justice and good governance. The SDGs underline that the main target is to attend to the needs of all, both in developed and developing countries. For this purpose, they adopt economic and financial resources, technology and developing structures of collaboration among countries[1].


SDGs and Economic Development


The SDGs develop targets to achieve a better world, but are they realistic? They aim to include all people and promote human development for all. To attain this the SDGs propose sustainable economic growth. At first sight, it seems a good strategy, but is it really feasible? What does sustainable economic development actually mean? In a limited world with limited resources, is it possible to achieve continuous economic growth? What price will the planet have to pay? What is the cost for the developing countries? And what is the role for trade in this economic development?


Although there is not one common definition for sustainable development, it is often defined as “development that meets the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.[2] And to achieve this the SDGs propose goal 8: Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth. However, nowadays everyone is aware that the current models of development, production and consumption are not possible to maintain in the long term. So, keeping that in mind, what are the SDGs proposing?


At this point the declaration of the SDGs establishes idealistic targets to establish a solid economy, to share the richness of the countries and fight against the inequalities among and within the countries (goal 10). The document provides a set of good intentions and measures and recognizes current problems denounced by civil society such as intensive agriculture, the rapid and extensive depletion of natural resources, the ways of production and the model of consumption of the developed world. However, no solutions are offered. At the same time, the declaration of the SDGs admit that the current International Trade Agreements are sometimes imposed by economically stronger countries. Developing countries have often to accept economic agreements imposed by developed countries in order to maintain other economic aids or simply to keep their access into their markets countries.


Sustainable Development Goals on Trade: a paradox



Trade has a relevant role in the world economy with a strong social and environmental impact. So, in order to obtain a sustainable economy, it is necessary to implement legally binding regulations in the International Trade Agreements to ensure human and economic development in the long term. 


Among the larger current economic international treaties, and those that are still under negotiation, we may mention the following: CETA (between EU and Canada), FTAAP (Asia-Pacific), TTIP (EU-USA), RCEP (South Asian Countries) or the EPAs (EU- Africa). None of these treaties guarantees a model for sustainable development or has implemented any obligatory measure in their current form to assure a new consumption model or new ways of production. None of the current treaties, or treaties under negotiation, have taken any legally binding measures relating to human rights, respect of labour rights, care for the environment, payment of fair taxes, transparency of public procurement or any other measure included in the SDGs.  


I consider that current trade agreements must be revised and implement sustainable chapters that guarantee the respect of human rights (not just as a mere declaration of intent in its preamble), incorporate respect for fundamental workers’ rights according to the standards of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and help to put an end to the environmental degradation. Likewise, the trade agreements currently under negotiation (e.g. the Economic Partnership Agreements between the European Union and different African regions) should incorporate chapters on sustainability with provisions for sustainable development in key aspects of trade.


The SDGs make a link between human and economic development and propose a per capita economic growth in accordance with national circumstances[3]. As in the treaties mentioned above, the SDGs consider that economic growth necessarily reduces poverty and boosts population welfare. However, the assumption that higher levels of output would result in economic transformation has not been true for many of the poorest people[4]. For economic development to be possible there must be comprehensive social and environmental measures establishing co-responsibility among all the stakeholders involved in trade agreements.


For real progress in the sustainability of the economy, both developed and developing countries must ensure the correct implementation of legally-binding sustainable regulations. Otherwise the governments will be repeating the same mistakes as in the past but with the word ‘sustainable’ in their documents. If the economic agreements do not correct the coherence of their policies in order to achieve fairer development, then the SDGs will be serving the profits of the rich, but not the human development of all.


José Luis Gutiérrez Aranda

AEFJN Advocacy Office Trade


[2] Our Common Future. By World Commission on Environment and Development (London, Oxford University Press, 1987, pp.383).

[3] Target 8.1.



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