Selling Sustainability Short? The private governance of labor and the environment in the coffee sector

Can private standards bring about more sustainable production practices? This question is of interest to conscientious consumers, academics studying the effectiveness of private regulation, and corporate social responsibility practitioners alike. My book provides an answer by combining an impact evaluation of 1,900 farmers with rich qualitative evidence from the coffee sectors of Honduras, Colombia and Costa Rica. Identifying an institutional design dilemma that private sustainability standards encounter as they scale up, this book shows how this dilemma plays out in the coffee industry. It highlights how the erosion of price premiums and the adaptation to buyers’ preferences have curtailed standards’ effectiveness in promoting sustainable practices that create economic opportunity costs for farmers, such as agroforestry or agroecology. It also provides a voice for coffee producers and value chain members to explain why the current system is failing in its mission to provide environmental, social, and economic co-benefits, and what changes are necessary to do better.

Selling Sustainability Short? was published in 2020 (in hardcover or E-book format) with Cambridge University Press. For 20% off, please download this flyer, and please contact me if you’d like to arrange for a seminar talk to introduce some of the key insights of the book.

Also, feel free to watch my book launch below! It’s ca. 1 hour of a mini-presentation, discussion with Graeme Auld and Stefano Ponte, and Q&A. You can also download the slides here: Book launch Selling Sustainability Short.

Note – If you are interested in the results but unable to afford the price of the book, there are several options. First, if you are affiliated with a university, check whether they have a subscription to CUP’s Cambridge Core e-book collection; you might be able to already access the e-book version online. Else, use the link on this page to recommend to your librarian that they add the book to their collection! Finally, if you are unaffiliated with a university or unable to get it via your library, contact me and we can see what we can do. 🙂

What others have said:

Is private governance truly improving environmental management and the lives of farmers in developing countries? Every researcher exploring this question will want to read this pathbreaking book, which journeys across coffee farms in Costa Rica, Honduras, and Colombia en route to offering a novel and sophisticated theoretical framework to evaluate the effectiveness of certification, fair-trade labeling, and private sustainability standards.

Peter Dauvergne, Professor of International Relations, University of British Columbia

Janina Grabs presents in her excellent study Selling Sustainability Short? a detailed, comprehensive, and nuanced analysis of the often-lacking effectiveness of coffee certification on the ground, pushing the state of the debate to a new level.

Frank Biermann, Professor of Global Sustainability Governance, Utrecht University

This remarkable and beautifully written book applies novel and highly sophisticated theoretical and methodological approaches to study the effectiveness of voluntary private sustainability standards. Bringing together analysis of standards design, standards interactions, and on-the-ground practices and impacts among coffee growers in Central America, it finds that sustainability standards have often lost their way, failing to create viable alternatives to conventional market systems.

Kenneth W. Abbott, Jack E. Brown Chair in Law Emeritus and Professor of Global Studies, Arizona State University

With its careful examination of coffee farms in three countries and sharp theoretical insights, Selling Sustainability Short significantly raises the bar for research on private regulation.  It is brimming with fresh concepts and findings, which show how the mainstreaming of sustainability standards has gone wrong.

Tim Bartley, Professor of Sociology, Washington University in St. Louis, author of Rules without Rights: Land, Labor, and Private Authority in the Global Economy

Janina Grabs provides an excellent practical and theoretical guide for how to effectively manage sustainability certification programs.  She offers a rare and illuminating in-depth analysis of the creation and long-term implementation of green certification programs. You will treasure this book if you want to know how green certification can not only help large multinational corporations but also provide economic and environmental benefits to local producers around the world.

Jorge E. Rivera, Professor & Ave Tucker Fellow, Department of Strategic Management & Public Policy, The George Washington University

This book by Janina Grabs on the private governance of coffee production is a path-breaking work that makes numerous contributions to scholarly understanding of regulatory governance.  Prior research on private sustainability standards has often struggled to capture either the day-to-day life of farmers and producers at the start of the supply chain, the relationship between market dynamics and certification schemes, or the broader effectiveness of these certification schemes.  Grabs’s vast data collection and fieldwork efforts across three coffee-producing nations enable her to make important inferences about each of these elements of the private, sustainability standards of coffee production, thereby providing a comprehensive and detailed picture of the coffee industry and its relationship with the physical environment.  This book will be of significant interest to scholars across a wide range of disciplines, including those who study environmental policy and regulation, private governance standards or regulation and governance, broadly speaking.

Colin Provost, Associate Professor of Public Policy, University College London

The contested meaning of ‘sustainability’ is at the center of debates about how to address a growing number of environmental and social crises. In Selling Sustainability Short, Janina Grabs convincingly explains why the proliferation of sustainability standards has watered down the term to a point where it means very little indeed. Provocative, insightful, meticulously researched and deeply critical – this book is required reading for anyone interested in whether market-based approaches to sustainability can work.

Hamish van der Ven, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science and School of Environment, McGill University

Selling Sustainability Short is one of the most important books on sustainability governance of the past decade, and the best book on coffee I have read in a very long time. Janina Grabs meticulously chronicles how market-driven governance instruments suffer from serious institutional design dilemmas as they seek to mainstream sustainability. She shows that the success of sustainability governance in coffee value chains and beyond derives from the ability of coupling relatively strict standards with support for suppliers to comply with them. Theoretically informed and empirically rich, Selling Sustainability Short is a pearl of a book.

Stefano Ponte, Professor, Department of Management, Society and Communication, Copenhagen Business School, and co-author (with Benoit Daviron) of The Coffee Paradox: Global Markets, Commodity Trade and the Elusive Promise of Development

Once in a generation a book appears that is so impressive in its theoretical rigour, empirical research, and practical importance for the world, that it grabs you and doesn’t let go. Grabs has produced just such a tome. She is clearly deeply motivated by a curiosity about whether private governance and corporate social responsibility initiatives might indeed be more “effective and efficient” than traditional governmental processes in addressing enduring environmental challenges. To answer this question, she spent years in the field generating her own primary quantitative data of decades of “on the ground” impacts,  which she reinforced this research through careful and systematic interviews with officials working at multiple governance levels, to carefully and systematically assesses ecolabeling in the coffee sector. The answer, she clearly and compelling tell us, is “no”. When it comes to agriculture in general, and the coffee sector in particular, eco-labeling has not had the impact its creators had hoped, and yet it is continues to be championed by those NGOs and businesses offering solutions to deforestation, species extinctions, and the climate crisis. In short, it is consumers and the public who have been “roasted”. Their overoptimistic expectations have been reinforced not only by advocates, but also by hopeful scholars whose produced sanguine theories and results. At the same time, her work also sows the seeds for developing much deeper and more thoughtful ways to ponder, and shape, problem focused public and private policy tools.  A must read not only for students of the politics and policies of commodities and environment, but for anyone interested in understanding whether, and how, innovative policies might be developed, and championed, to meaningfully promote environmental stewardship in the global era.

Benjamin Cashore, Li Ka Shing Professor in Public Management, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore