About me

I am a research associate at the University of Münster, Germany and a current Visiting Assistant in Research at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University.

My research focuses on sustainability governance in international value chains and the options of states, firms, NGOs and other actors to improve the environmental and social sustainability of commodity production.

The questions that fascinate me are the following: who defines and controls what sustainability means in the marketplace? What types of rule-making and enforcement mechanisms exist that govern these processes, and how effective are they in creating change? Do they set the right incentives for market actors, particularly those in the Global South, to adhere to them? As global production and consumption processes are threatening to erode our planet’s resources, what actions can states and non-state actors take to steer these processes into more amenable directions, and how do these actions work within the market framework?

To learn more about my current research projects, please visit my research page.

To have a look at both academic and non-academic work I published in recent years, please look at the publications page.

I also conceptualize and teach undergraduate courses at the University of Münster. You can learn more about these courses and download sample syllabi on the teaching page!

My full CV, including my academic career as well as work experience in various international organizations, can be found on the CV page.

Finally, I am involved in several side projects that aim to cross the divide between the academic and non-academic space and inform policy-makers and the public on the politics of sustainable food systems. The ‘other projects’ page summarizes these efforts.

If you would like to get in touch, please find my email address and various networks on the contact page. I look forward to being in touch!

My research

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.


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.

Research interests

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


Academic writing

Peer-reviewed publications

Dietz T., Estrella A., Font Gilabert P., Grabs J. (2017) Women’s empowerment in rural Honduran coffee communities and its determinants. Development in Practice (in press). (equal authors)

Grabs J., Kilian B., Calderón Hernández, D., Dietz, T. (2016) Understanding coffee certification dynamics: A spatial analysis of Voluntary Sustainability Standard proliferation. International Food and Agribusiness Management Review (Volume 19 Issue 3): 31-56.

Abstract: Third-party Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) have emerged as an increasingly popular strategy to guarantee sustainability in the coffee value chain. Yet, knowledge of the population characteristics of certified farmers, and of the influence of transnational and local supply chain actors on the uptake of VSS at the producer level, is still scarce. Using expert interviews, a comprehensive database of certificate holders and spatial mapping analyses, this paper adds to present knowledge concerning the effectiveness of VSS in the coffee sector in three ways. First, it showcases the structural, geographical and socio-economic tendencies toward VSS adoption in Guatemala, Colombia and Costa Rica, and allows first insights in the additionality and effectiveness of certification schemes derived from these indicators. Second, it contributes to an up-to-date understanding of the coffee supply chain, a sector of great economic importance both to producing and consuming countries that is in constant flux and reorganization, and it explains how current VSS interact with this type of global supply chain. Finally, through the construction of a comprehensive population of certified farmers, it enables better evaluation of existing case studies, generalizability, possible biases and provides valuable information for the preparation of future impact evaluation projects.

Grabs J., Langen N., Maschkowski G., Schäpke N. (2016) Understanding role models for change: A multilevel analysis of success factors of grassroots initiatives for sustainable consumption. Journal of Cleaner Production 134(A): 98-111.

Abstract: In order to achieve sustainable societies, we need models of behavior that go beyond individuals equating wellbeing and material consumption levels. Lowering individual footprints might be more acceptable once we include social relations, adopting responsibilities for other human and non-human life as well as civic engagement as complementary sources of wellbeing. Grassroots initiatives that stimulate collective action and social learning contribute to these diverse sources of wellbeing when striving to facilitate sustainable consumption. Thus, they can become role models for societal change. This review sets out to investigate why grassroots initiatives are created and developed successfully by focusing on the processes of founding, engaging in, developing and maintaining grassroots initiatives. We look at insights from different disciplines that address behavioral change and social learning to develop an overview of factors that are from an interdisciplinary perspective highly relevant to understand societal change processes. By means of organizing the analysis along three levels of human behavior – the individual level, the group level, and the societal level – we capture the multifaceted relationships influencing the success of grassroots initiatives. We present theoretical and empirical evidence connecting a broad spectrum of concepts that can subsequently be used as testable factors in fieldwork for in-depth investigations of grassroots success.

Maschkowski G., Schäpke N., Grabs J., Langen N. (2016) Learning from co-founders of grassroots initiatives: personal resilience, transition, and behavioral change – a salutogenic approach. Henfrey T., Maschkowski G. (eds.) Resilience, Community Action and Societal Transformation 2016. East Meon: Permanent Publications and Bristol: Good Works.

Grabs J. (2015) The rebound effects of switching to vegetarianism. A microeconomic analysis of Swedish consumption behavior. Ecological Economics (116): 270–279.

Abstract: Sustainable diets, in particular vegetarianism, are often promoted as effective measures to reduce our environmental footprint. Yet, few conclusions take full-scale behavioral changes into consideration. This can be achieved by calculating the indirect environmental rebound effect related to the re-spending of expenditure saved during the initial behavioral shift. This study aims to quantify the potential energy use and greenhouse gas emission savings, and most likely rebound effects, related to an average Swedish consumer’s shift to vegetarianism. Using household budget survey data, it estimates Engel curves of 117 consumption goods, derives marginal expenditure shares, and links these values to environmental intensity indicators. Results indicate that switching to vegetarianism could save consumers 16% of the energy use and 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions related to their dietary consumption. However, if they re-spend the saved income according to their current preferences, they would forego 96% of potential energy savings and 49% of greenhouse gas emission savings. These rebound effects are even higher for lower-income consumers who tend to re-spend on more environmentally intensive goods. Yet, the adverse effect could be tempered by purchasing organic goods or re-spending the money on services. In order to reduce the environmental impact of consumption, it could thus be recommended to not only focus on dietary shifts, but rather on the full range of consumer expenditure.

ICPC (2010) Crime Prevention and Community Safety: Trends and Perspectives (contributing researcher)

Working papers

Grabs, J. (2017) The Rise of Buyer-Driven Sustainability Governance: Emerging Trends in the Global Coffee Sector. ZenTra Working Paper in Transnational Studies No. 73 / 2017.

Abstract: The coffee industry connects millions of smallholder farmers with global markets and has historically been a frontrunner in sustainability efforts. Yet, the governance of this value chain and its sustainability depends on the distribution of power between market actors. This paper applies a Global Value Chain approach (Gereffi, 1999) to characterize the current distribution of power and opportunities in the coffee sector, and examines how this characterization has influenced the sector’s non-state market-driven (NSMD) sustainability governance structure (Bernstein and Cashore, 2007). The study finds that in a strongly buyer-driven chain, the reinterpretation of sustainability as supply chain management has led to the emergence of more company-owned standards and direct-impact projects as alternatives to third-party certification schemes, as well as their coordination in pre-competitive sectoral platforms. The simultaneous rise of producing-country definitions of sustainability points to a continued fragmentation of sustainability governance and a loss of authority of traditional NSMD channels.

Non-academic writing


Food Policy for Thought (since 2013)

Magazine articles

Fleischproduktion. Der vergessene Sektor in der Klimadebatte. Adhoc International. Issue 14: Klima und Mensch im Wandel. Wege in eine klimafreundliche Zukunft. December 2015

Zukunft für den Acker? Die Lösungen der Kleinbauern. Adhoc International. Issue 14: Klima und Mensch im Wandel. Wege in eine klimafreundliche Zukunft. December 2015 (co-authored by Julia Harrer and Loredana Sorg)

Home-Grown Hunger. The Struggle for Food Sovereignty in Canada’s North. GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine. Food/Land Issue. November 2015

Can the Sharing Economy Revolutionize Consumption Patterns? Emanate Magazine. Issue 11: Innovating Against Crisis. February 2014

Sustainability Starts on Your Plate. Emanate Magazine. Issue 10: Sustainability. June 2013


Editor and Photo Editor: Adhoc International. Issue 14-16.

Editor-in-Chief: Samizdat. The McGill Russian Undergraduate Journal. Volume 1. 2012-2013

Co-Editor-in-Chief: McGill Journal of Political Studies. Volume 3. Winter 2012

Guest posts and contributions

How Kenneth Lander and THRIVE Farmers Are Revolutionizing the Coffee Supply Chain. Food Tank, June 2015

Las Lajas: The Micro-Coffee Mill Proving that Small Is Beautiful. Food Tank, June 2015

Costa Rica’s Pineapple Monopoly Not So Sweet. Food Tank, May 2015

Klimafreundlicher Kaffee aus Costa Rica: Ein Beitrag zu emissionsarmer Wirtschaftsentwicklung. Newsletter der deutschen Botschaft Costa Rica, June 2015 (co-authored by Andreas Nieters)

High Food Prices and Obesity in Costa Rica. Food Tank, April 2015

Organic Farming and Climate-Smart Agriculture – A Complicated Relationship. Nefia, November 2014

UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food consults with Québec civil society. Food Secure Canada, May 2012



Ethics and Sustainability Governance of International Value Chains, advanced Bachelor’s seminar, University of Münster

(own design)

Course description: Child labor, deforestation, environmental pollution, human rights abuses – there are many sustainability issues in international value chains that need to be solved. This interdisciplinary seminar gives an overview of governance tools that governments, NGOs and private actors have developed to improve the economic, social and environmental sustainability of international production and consumption. From international trade agreements to local fisheries councils, from Fair Trade certifications to public-private partnerships, we will study the accomplishments and shortcomings of many real-world mechanisms on different levels of the global-local and public-private spectrums. The literature covered will include approaches from political science, international law, business ethics and economics that critically examine questions of legitimacy, effectiveness, and representativeness of existing approaches. We will also incorporate many current issues into our discussions.

Syllabus Ethics and Sustainability Governance

Reference list Ethics and Sustainability Governance

International Organizations, undergraduate lecture course, University of Münster

(own design)

Course description: This course is an intermediate-level course in international relations which will focus on the role of international organizations (IOs) in world politics. Its main focus will be on the problems of cooperation in the international system and how international institutions are used, with varying degrees of success, to overcome these problems. Particular emphasis will be placed on students’ ability to think critically, both about the nature of problems that face states as well as development of global governance mechanisms. While international non-governmental organizations will make an appearance, our focus will be on intergovernmental organizations. We will examine their historical origins, design, functions, the international and domestic political forces that impact their operations, and their effectiveness. In order to have a core set of analytical tools we can apply to our study of specific IOs, we will begin the course with a critical consideration of the challenge of cooperation under anarchy and IR scholars’ responses. From a theoretical perspective, we will consider various approaches, such as realist, liberal, constructivist, and institutionalist/bureaucratic arguments, as well as theories of marginalization. Delving into specific IOs, we begin with a historic perspective on the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations. We spend some time on the institutional design and functioning of the UN and its main organs, before moving on to regional organizations such as the European Union and the Organization of American States. Next, we consider how particular global issues are addressed by intergovernmental institutions. We look at collective security (NATO), human rights protection (UNHRC, European and Interamerican Courts of Human Rights), peacekeeping and criminal justice (UN Blue Helmets and ICC), trade and development (World Bank, IMF, WTO), and the environment (UNEP and UNFCCC). We end the semester by reflecting on the future of IOs and their capacity to solve global problems.

Contributing instructor


Principles of Sustainable Development, MBA case study course, INCAE Business School

Other projects

Food (Policy) for Thought blog

Since starting my Master’s degree in Agricultural, Food and Environmental Policy Analysis in 2013, I have been writing a blog on issues and policies related to sustainable food systems, production and consumption. The blog spans a wide range of topics from dietary choices, obesity prevention and food security to livestock production, environmental pollution and farmers’ mental health. I particularly enjoy translating complex scientific findings and insights into a language and perspective that resonates with non-expert members of the interested public, because I believe that environmental and agricultural policy issues are a concern of everybody.


If you would like to get in touch to exchange opinions, collaborate, or just catch up (in person or over Skype), please feel free to shoot me an email at janina [dot] grabs [at] uni-muenster [dot] de!

You can also find me on Twitter.

Furthermore, I have accounts on the following networks. Feel free to add me!




Google Scholar

All images used on this website are from Creative Commons sources. Many thanks to the talented photographers below for sharing their work!

About me page: Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash

My research page: Photo by Christian Joudrey on Unsplash

Publications page: Photo by Syd Wachs on Unsplash

Teaching page: Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

CV page: Photo by James Forbes on Unsplash

Other projects page: Photo by Matthew Smith on Unsplash

Contact page: Photo by Alexa Mazzarello on Unsplash