Book project

Selling sustainability short? The effectiveness and limits of private governance in the coffee sector

The global production of agri-food commodities is a key driver of a wide range of environmental degradation and social problems, including deforestation, biodiversity loss, labor abuses and pervasive rural poverty. In response to a ‘retreat of the state’ (Strange 1996) and its perceived inability to regulate transnational supply chains, the attention of civil society organizations and scholars turned to ways in which market forces could be harnessed to address these problems. Today, private sustainability standards and eco-labels such as Fairtrade or the Rainforest Alliance certification – which I call market-driven regulatory governance – have existed for over three decades and gained popularity in a wide range of sectors. A broad literature has examined their emergence, evolution, and institutionalization (Cashore, Auld, and Newsom 2004; Pattberg 2005b; Bartley 2007; Auld et al. 2009; Manning et al. 2012; Auld 2014; Grabs 2018).

The central puzzle motivating this book is that, despite this scholarly attention, we still only stand at the beginning of answering the pivotal question: Do they work? Can the use of private standards compel value chain actors to change their practices in the direction of greater sustainability? If so, why are some standards more successful in this mission than others? And if not, what can be done by standard-setters or public policy to promote more effective change?

Answering this question requires a new theoretical framework as well as novel empirical evidence to analyze the effectiveness of market-driven regulatory governance. The theoretical framework at the heart of this book brings together Ostromian institutional rational choice theory with insights from regime effectiveness and socio-legal research to trace how private governance changes rules, incentives, and practices throughout the value chain. It connects four key elements related to market-driven regulatory governance that have hitherto been overwhelmingly analyzed apart. First, we need to understand what they work for – that is, what the goal of sustainable production actually entails. Second, it is important to examine the institutional design of private standards, both regarding how they try to harness market incentives and how they set compliance rules. Third, it is paramount to understand what changes on the ground are actually initiated by private standards – in terms of value distribution in the marketplace as well as regarding production practices in the field. Finally, it is crucial to assess whether transnational private mechanisms work similarly in different institutional contexts, or whether national-level conditions radically change outcomes. The grounding of these different elements in various subdisciplines has meant that the existing evidence is frequently disjointed – political scientists focus on the institutional design of standards, but have a largely incomplete understanding of impacts; while supply chain outcomes, in the domain of political economists, and on-the-ground outcomes, at the heart of impact evaluation work, are rarely linked to comprehensive institutional explanations for distinct outcomes.

Selling sustainability short solves these shortcomings of existing scholarship by examining and linking all four elements in an innovative fashion, using a comparative analysis of certified coffee production in three Latin American institutional and regulatory settings: Honduras, Colombia, and Costa Rica.

Harnessing evidence from the sector with the longest-standing experience and broadest dissemination of private sustainability standards, Selling sustainability short poses hard-hitting questions regarding the problem-solving effectiveness of private regulatory governance. By exposing an institutional design dilemma and its effects in the field, it refutes the often-repeated argument that standards will show effectiveness if they only scale up sufficiently. Instead, it shows that the very market forces that allowed market-driven governance initiatives to emerge in the first place actively undermine their ability to drive change in the direction of strong sustainability at scale. In its last chapter, the book examines alternative means to provide producers with better livelihoods and compensate for their social and ecological services.

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