Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The stories behind your cup of coffee – are standards selling sustainability short?

Janina Grabs

For many academics, the workday begins with a cup of coffee. Next time you fill up the machine – possibly still bleary-eyed – take a closer look at the coffee package: can you see a sustainability label such as Rainforest Alliance’s frog or Fairtrade’s little figurine? Have you ever wondered what stands behind those sustainability claims, and what differences they make on the ground?

In my book “Selling sustainability short? The private governance of labor and the environment in the coffee sector”, I take readers on a journey along the coffee value chain all the way down to the field to answer these questions. Over three years, my team and I conducted research in three coffee-producing countries (Costa Rica, Honduras, and Colombia) to understand whether private standards can be considered effective governance tools to address key sustainability challenges such as child labor, poor health and safety standards, deforestation, and ecosystem degradation in the subtropics. We collected data on the production practices of over 1’900 coffee farmers, some of which were certified, while others weren’t. By comparing certified and uncertified farmers that are otherwise remarkably similar, I estimated the impact that standards have on the ground. In addition, I conducted over 60 interviews with actors along the value chain, and drew on a rich literature on coffee supply chains and the impacts of standards on the ground. The book is one of the first to compare the seven most prevalent standards in the coffee sector against each other; compare their impacts in several producing origins; and link standards’ impact to their design as well as their historical implementation.

In bringing these separate threads together, it uncovers an institutional design dilemma that standards faced as they aimed to expand from their niches and enter the mainstream market. This dilemma made it difficult for them to expand while maintaining high price premiums as economic incentives for farmers. In consequence, farmers are increasingly being asked to make wide-ranging changes to their production practices without being compensated for these changes in the marketplace. On the ground, this trend means that the practices with the highest opportunity costs – that is, where producers are trading off higher yields for better environmental outcomes, or have to increase their expenses significantly in order to pay better wages – are the most difficult for farmers to achieve. Yet, those are exactly the practices that would create the greatest change from the status quo. Instead, we have seen a rhetorical shift toward the idea of ‘win-win’ practices such as ‘sustainable intensification’, where farmers are increasing both their yields and making small environmental improvements. This, of course, plays into the hands of multinational buyers of coffee, who seek to ensure larger quantities of coffee (at low prices) to satisfy our never-quenched thirst.

Yet, the sector has also been rattled by recurring coffee price crises, the latest of which is still ongoing. As I write this piece, the futures price for Arabica coffee has dropped below 1 USD – while most producers need at least 1.40 USD to cover costs. In this environment, it is time to rethink what we mean by ‘sustainability’, and what role private regulatory initiatives and public policy actors can play respectively to further it. My book contributes to that debate by combining a sophisticated theoretical framework with rich quantitative and qualitative evidence, and targets academics and practitioners alike.

Selling Sustainability Short? by Janina Grabs
Selling Sustainability Short? by Janina Grabs

About The Author

Janina Grabs

Janina Grabs is a postdoctoral researcher at ETH Zurich. She is the recipient of APSA's 2019 Virginia M. Walsh Dissertation Award, the 2018 Giandomenico Majone Prize for the best e...

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