Grabs, J. (2020). Selling sustainability short? The private governance of labor and the environment in the coffee sector. Cambridge University Press.
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.
- Reviewed in Governance by Elizabeth Bennett, who called the book “one of the most important contributions to the field since initial theorizing in the early 2000s”
Refereed journal articles
Please email me if you are interested in pdf versions of any of these papers!
Dietz, T., & Grabs, J. (2021). Additionality and Implementation Gaps in Voluntary Sustainability Standards. New Political Economy, online first, doi: 10.1080/13563467.2021.1881473
Abstract: Voluntary Sustainability Standards have become a popular private governance framework for more sustainable agri-food value chains. However, recent mainstreaming efforts have increased competition between standards and driven down price premiums. This study employs a dataset of 659 Honduran coffee producers to examine whether the most widely used standards in the coffee sector (4C, Fairtrade, Fairtrade/organic, UTZ Certified and Rainforest Alliance) represent effective solutions for improving the social, environmental and economic sustainability practices of smallholder farmers under such conditions. It presents 54 farm-level indicators, compared across five standard systems, and links field results to a discussion of the strategies and governance prospects of voluntary standards. We find that no scheme has managed to grow substantially while maintaining strong additionality: commercially successful standards show little impact, while stricter schemes create high entry barriers and unresolved opportunity costs. Successful mainstreaming would require better cost coverage of sustainability improvements by value chain actors.
Grabs, J. (2021). Signaling Southern sustainability: When do actors use private or public regulatory authority to market tropical commodities? Journal of Environmental Management 285, doi: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2021.112053
Abstract: The private regulation of agri-food value chains through sustainability standards has proliferated in recent decades, promising producers to differentiate themselves and gain preferential market access. However, in a number of producing countries, laws exist that mirror and go beyond what private labels demand. These countries have two options for placing their sustainable products in the market: signal their national system’s equivalence to private schemes, or utilize the existing regulatory framework as favorable preconditions for widespread certification. In framing this choice as a collective reputation challenge, this study analyzes under which conditions states and parastatal actors opt for either approach, provides evidence of the strategies used, and draws conclusions on their respective success and on-the-ground outcomes. Using an in-depth comparative case study of the coffee sectors of Costa Rica and Colombia, the study finds that the divergence in institutional strategies can be explained by three factors: sector-specific institutional capacities; a country’s place in the commodity marketplace, which determines the expected added pay-off of certification; and a country’s overall international image.
Grabs, J., & Carodenuto, S. (2021). Traders as sustainability governance actors in global food supply chains: A research agenda. Business Strategy and the Environment 30(2), 1314-1332, doi: 10.1002/bse.2686
Abstract: Corporate actors are rapidly gaining ground as nontraditional forms of authority that shape sustainability governance efforts in global food supply chains. This paper highlights the critical, but underresearched role of traders—companies whose core business lies in the movement and exchange of agricultural commodities between producers and manufacturers—in linking corporate sustainability ambitions to on-the-ground impacts. Drawing on a systematic analysis of the major transnational corporations trading cocoa, coffee, and palm oil, we present advantages and potential pitfalls of relying on traders as implementers of sustainability governance and outline a future research agenda that focuses on producer-level impacts, changes in supply chain organization and power dynamics, and traders’ interactions with state and other nonstate actors. At the intersection of supply chain management, political economy, geography, and global governance, research on traders as key sustainability governance actors also provides novel opportunities for interdisciplinary work and stakeholder engagement.
Grabs, J., Auld, G., & Cashore, B. (2020). Private regulation, public policy, and the perils of adverse ontological selection. Regulation & Governance, early view, doi: 10.1111/rego.12354
Abstract: What problems can private regulatory governance solve, and what role should public policy play? Despite access to the same empirical evidence, the current scholarship on private governance offers widely divergent answers to these questions. Through a critical review, this paper details five ontologically distinct academic logics – calculated strategic behavior; learning and experimentalist processes; political institutionalism; global value chain and convention theory; and neo‐Gramscian accounts – that offer divergent conclusions based on the particular facets of private governance they illuminate, while ignoring those they obfuscate. In this crowded marketplace of ideas, scholars and practitioners are in danger of adverse ontological selection whereby certain approaches and insights are systematically ignored and certain problem conceptions are prioritized over others. As a corrective, we encourage scholars to make their assumptions explicit, and occasionally switch between logics, to better understand private governance’s problem‐solving potential and its interactions with public policy.
Grabs, J. (2020). Assessing the institutionalization of private sustainability governance in a changing coffee sector. Regulation & Governance 14(2), doi: 10.1111/rego.12212
Abstract: The potential of transnational private governance initiatives to constitute effective alternatives to state-led regulation of global value chains rests on their ability to scale up and become institutionalized in a given sector. This study examines whether such institutionalization has occurred in the coffee sector, the commodity with the most widespread adoption of certified products and over 30 years’ experience of private governance, and tests hypotheses on facilitating and inhibiting conditions. It finds that while norm generation around responsible supply chain management and the organizational institutionalization of standard-setting bodies is well advanced, the practice of internalizing social and environmental externalities through the routinized production and purchase of higher priced certified goods continues to be questioned by industry actors. Indeed, conditions that favored normative and organizational institutionalization, such as high levels of industry concentration, product differentiation, and deliberative interaction, are shown to represent barriers to the practice-oriented institutionalization of market-driven regulatory governance.
Dietz, T., Estrella Chong, A., Grabs, J., & Kilian, B. (2020). How effective is multiple certification in improving the economic conditions of smallholder farmers? Evidence from an impact evaluation in Colombia’s coffee belt. Journal of Development Studies 56(6), 1141-1160. doi: 10.1080/00220388.2019.1632433
Abstract: Voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) in the coffee sector have become a popular tool to improve the livelihoods of smallholder coffee farmers. As third-party and company-led VSS have proliferated, an increasing number of producer groups are turning toward multiple certification to diversify their export channels. Yet, each certification requires added efforts and expenses, both at the farm and the organisational level. Hence, it is important to evaluate the additionality of multiple certification in bringing benefits to smallholders’ farm economy. This study addresses this research gap using a sample of over 600 coffee farmers from two Fairtrade-certified cooperatives in Colombia’s coffee belt to assess the additional economic impact of Starbucks C.A.F.E. Practices, Nespresso AAA, 4C, and the combination of Rainforest Alliance/Nespresso AAA certification. In examining coffee gross profit and household income, we find limited gains from the addition of industry and company-led standards to the Fairtrade certification. Evaluating pathways to improved economic performance, gross profit improvements appear most likely if higher average prices are combined with lower production costs. Finally, we show that the majority of farmers are unable to break even, irrespective of their certification status. This alarming result illustrates the need for further intervention in the coffee value chain.
Grabs, J., & Ponte, S. (2019). The evolution of power in the global coffee value chain and production network. Journal of Economic Geography 19(4), 803–828. doi: 10.1093/jeg/lbz008.
Abstract: The configurations of global value chains and production networks are constantly changing, leading to new trajectories and geographical distributions of value creation and capture. In this article, we offer a 40-year evolutionary perspective on power and governance in the global coffee value chain and production network. We identify three distinct phases that are characterized by different power dynamics, governance setups, and distributional configurations. We find that the kinds of power exercised along the coffee chain have changed, but also that the underlying power inequities between Northern buyers and Southern producers have remained fundamentally unchanged.
Dietz, T., Grabs, J., & Estrella Chong, A. (2019). Mainstreamed voluntary sustainability standards and their effectiveness: Evidence from the Honduran coffee sector. Regulation & Governance, early view, doi: 10.1111/rego.12239
Abstract: Voluntary Sustainability Standards have become a popular private governance framework for more sustainable agri-food value chains. Yet, amidst increasing concerns over the decoupling of standards and practices, it is still unclear to what extent agricultural standard requirements are implemented on the ground, and what may account for such differential implementation. This study employs a novel dataset of 659 Honduran coffee producers to examine this puzzle, focusing on the most widely used standards in the coffee sector (4C, Fairtrade, Fairtrade/organic, UTZ Certified and Rainforest Alliance). It first presents results on implementation and behavioral change, based on matched groups of certified and non-certified farmers, for eight representative social and environmental sustainability practices. Analyzing determinants of implementation success, it finds that the stringency of rules – if they are known by farmers – and the level of farm-gate prices are significantly correlated with farmers’ performance and lower levels of decoupling across a majority of indicators. These results speak to the importance of supporting small-scale actors’ awareness of and financial capacity to comply with proposed sustainability rules.
Dietz, T., Auffenberg, J., Grabs, J., Estrella Chong, A., & Kilian, B. (2018). The Voluntary Coffee Standard Index (VOCSI). Developing a composite index to assess and compare the strength of Mainstream Voluntary Sustainability Standards in the global coffee industry. Ecological Economics, 150, 72-87.
Abstract: Over the last years, key players in business, politics and civil society have promoted Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) to shift global markets towards more sustainable value chains. In this article, we develop a new methodological approach (composite indices) to assess and compare the strength of competing voluntary sustainability standards (VSS). We apply this approach to all major VSS in global coffee production. In detail, we identify 92 regulatory topics relating to sustainability improvements in global coffee production through VSS. We weight these indicators and develop a coding system to evaluate how strongly each VSS addresses each of the 92 regulatory topics. The results show four sub-indices that compare the strength of the different VSS within the four main regulatory areas of sustainable development: (I) environmental sustainability (II), social sustainability, (III) economic sustainability and (IV) compliance enforcement. Aggregating these sub-indices build the “Voluntary Coffee Standards Index” (VOCSI) that compares the strength of VSS across the four main regulatory areas. We evaluate the robustness of the index and correlate the VOCSI with the amount of coffee certified to examine the relationship between the strengths of a standard and its proliferation.
Dietz, T., Estrella Chong, A., Font Gilabert, P., & Grabs, J. (2018). Women’s empowerment in rural Honduras and its determinants: insights from coffee communities in Ocotepeque and Copan. Development in Practice, 28(1), 33-50.
Abstract: This article quantifies the level of women’s empowerment in western Honduran coffee-producing households through the construction of the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index, and highlights the determinants of each empowerment indicator and their interactions. Women in the study region suffer from a lack of control over use of income and access to productive resources. Since control and ownership of assets are positively correlated with input in productive decisions and control over the use of income in this study region, it is suggested that “low-hanging fruit” to improve empowerment would be to invest in interventions that strengthen asset control and distribution.
Grabs, J., Kilian, B., Hernández, D. C., & Dietz, T. (2016) Understanding coffee certification dynamics: A spatial analysis of Voluntary Sustainability Standard proliferation. International Food & Agribusiness Management Review, 19(3), 31-55.
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, 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.
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.
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. In: Henfrey T., Maschkowski G. (eds.) Resilience, Community Action and Societal Transformation 2016. East Meon: Permanent Publications and Bristol: Good Works.
Grabs, J. (2021). Private Governance and Public Authority: Regulating Sustainability in a Global Economy. By Stefan Renckens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 314p. $99.99 cloth. Perspectives on Politics, 19(1), 324-326.
Biber-Freudenberger, L., Ferrara, V., Gibassier, D., Glover, J., Grabs, J., Grace, M., Hörmann, S, Targetti, S. (2020). How can environmental regulators support businesses to improve the outcomes of their operations for biodiversity, with a focus on small and medium-sized enterprises in the food and beverage sector in Europe? Report prepared by an EKLIPSE Expert Working Group. UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Wallingford, United Kingdom.
Grabs, J. (2015) Value-adding strategies for low-emission coffee. GIZ – Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, Costa Rican country bureau
Grabs, J. (2015) Estrategias de valorización de acciones climáticas en el sector cafetalero: Un panorama. GIZ – Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, Costa Rican country bureau
This report was created for Costa Rica’s NAMA Café project and presents different options for bringing low-emission coffee (and consumer products more generally) to market.
Bennett, E., & Grabs, J. (2021) Rethinking the “necessary” trade-offs of distributing value to suppliers: An analysis of the profit-sharing model. Carr Center Discussion Paper. Harvard Kennedy School Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.
Abstract: Far too often, global supply chains distribute value in ways that contribute to income inequality and the uneven accumulation of wealth. Despite a surge of innovations to address this problem—such as fair trade, corporate social responsibility, and creating shared value—the issue of value distribution persists as a pressing priority for the international development and business communities. This article puts forth a first attempt at theorizing profit sharing as a potential mechanism for more equitable value distribution in global value chains. Drawing on two in-depth, multi-method case studies of companies that share profits in the coffee sector, we develop eight theoretical propositions about the applicability and efficacy of profit sharing as a tool for redistribution. Our research suggests that profit sharing can distribute value without requiring suppliers to compromise price stability, profit maximization, value creation, or alternative economic opportunities. This conclusion challenges extant theory which asserts (based on studies of fair trade certification, direct trade, and solidarity trade) that these tradeoffs are often necessary or inevitable. We also extend the literature on profit sharing. Extant literature examines firm-level attempts to maximize productivity and minimize dissent, while we are theorizing profit sharing’s fitness for redistributive objectives in the context of value chains. The implication of our findings is that, in some contexts, companies may be able to increase prices and improve income stability without requiring suppliers to compromise other economic priorities.
Full case studies underpinning the analysis are available here: Two Case Studies of Profit Sharing in Global Supply Chains: Catracha Coffee Company & Thrive Farmers International, Inc.
See, also, our article in 25 Magazine, an official publication of the Specialty Coffee Association, which came out in April 2021.
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.
Food Policy for Thought (since 2013)
The coffee price crisis and price volatility: Can we tame the C-market? 25 Magazine. Issue 7. December 2018.
The hunt for new niches. Climate-friendly coffee production in Costa Rica. Internationale Politik. Special Issue Mercator Kolleg 2015. January/February 2016.
Jagd nach neuen Nichen. Klimafreundliche Kaffeeproduktion in Costa Rica. Internationale Politik. Sonderbeilage Mercator Kolleg 2015. January/February 2016.
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
Farm Profitability Q&A. SCA News, January 2019
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