PhD thesis: „Beyond Certifications? The Efficacy of Voluntary Sustainability Standards in Enhancing Sustainable Practices in the Coffee Sector of Latin America“
My PhD thesis examines the efficacy of voluntary sustainability standards in improving the environmental and social sustainability of the Latin American coffee sector.
Coffee is an important crop in many biodiversity hotspots including Honduras, Costa Rica and Colombia. Furthermore, coffee production and harvesting is a crucial source of income for the most vulnerable inhabitants. Sustainable production practices and safe and fair labor conditions on coffee farms are therefore of central relevance for environmental protection and poverty alleviation in the region.
However, high price volatility, increasing input costs, and power imbalances in the value chain jeopardize farms’ economic sustainability. This setting rewards yield-maximizing practices that may hurt the long-term health of coffee fields and the surrounding environment as well as undermine sustainable labor conditions.
Voluntary Sustainability Standards, including third-party labels and industry-led standards, were pioneered to tackle these systemic problems. Yet, the overall profitability of many certified farms has remained unchanged despite initial price increases due to increased production and control costs. Furthermore, the mainstreaming of certified and verified coffee has led to a precipitous drop in price premiums.
Without this central incentive for improvement, do farmers still apply the rules to the book? And if they do, is it because they benefit from an institutional support system that allows them – as well as their uncertified neighbors – to do so at a competitive cost? In other words, do certification schemes reliably increase social and environmental sustainability over the regional average? And are such improvements driven by certification schemes or rather the efforts of other sectorial actors?
Studies that measure the environmental and social performance of certifications are still scarce and most focus on self-reported or census data. This study implements an on-the-ground impact evaluation to understand the interaction between decreasing economic and the purported improved environmental and social sustainability of certified farms. Furthermore, it provides an up-to-date analysis of the global coffee value chain and the institutional settings of the three case study countries (Honduras, Costa Rica and Colombia), and gives an in-depth perspective on how Voluntary Sustainability Standards are implemented within this setting. Using coffee as a case study, it aims to contribute a novel perspective on the effectiveness of private sustainability governance within buyer-driven international value chains, and raise questions whether the way sustainability governance is conceptualized and implemented today needs to be revised in order for it to achieve maximum impact.
The TRANSSUSTAIN project
I am writing my thesis within the TRANSSUSTAIN project of the University of Münster’s Institute for Political Science. This project evaluates the efficacy of Voluntary Sustainability Standards in the coffee industry as well as alternative pathways for sustainability improvements. In addition to my thesis work, I had considerable project responsibilities regarding the establishing of practitioner networks, the conceptualization and implementation of the questionnaire used, the sampling of observations and training of data collectors, data analysis, the drafting of project publications, and the external communication of the project’s milestones. Beyond my main focus on environmental and social sustainability indicators, I collaborated closely on a publication regarding gender empowerment in Honduran coffee communities as well as the creation of an index that compares certification strictness and enforcement on a requirement-by-requirement basis.
I also work as a research consultant for the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems. Most recently, I contributed background research, provided literature reviews and drafted large sections of a report on the health externalities of food systems.
My main research interests include the following:
- International institutions
- International sustainability governance
- Non-state market-driven governance
- Global value chains
- Public policy (especially of agriculture, food and the environment)
- Political economy
- Sustainable production and consumption