My research

Broad research focus

In 2050, an estimated 9.7 billion people will inhabit our planet, with almost 3 billion individuals from emerging economies adopting increasingly Westernized consumption patterns. Given these trends, how can we ensure that our agri-food systems will be able to meet this rapidly rising demand while preserving natural resources as well as our carbon budget? Considering too the growing concentration in today’s agri-food supply chains, what mechanisms can help to distribute income along value chains and empower marginalized smallholder farmers and workers?

My research addresses these vital questions by investigating the effective and equitable governance of sustainable agri-food value chains. Situated at the disciplinary intersection of political economy, environmental and food studies, business ethics, and public policy, this research program aims to identify governance institutions that can generate real-world changes in market actors’ behavior, and understand the resulting impacts in biophysical and socio-economic systems. By connecting institutional insights from political science to their observed on-the-ground implementation and effects, it harnesses interdisciplinarity to arrive at actionable policy recommendations for more sustainable future food systems.

My main research interests thus include the following:

  • International (public and private) sustainability governance
  • Global value chains
  • Business ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility
  • Sustainable supply chain management
  • Public policy (especially of agriculture, food and the environment)
  • Political economy
  • Sustainable production and consumption

Currently, I pursue a number of interrelated research projects that are described in greater detail below.

Assessing the effectiveness and equity of zero-deforestation commitment implementation in the palm oil sector

In my postdoc in the Environmental Policy Lab at ETH Zurich, working with Prof. Rachael Garrett,  and with financial support of a Swiss National Science Foundation research grant, I analyze the implementation, effectiveness, and equity of zero-deforestation commitments in the palm oil sector in Indonesia by combining qualitative, spatial, and survey data.

Zero-deforestation commitments are a form of aspirational, goal-oriented private governance of agri-food supply chains. ZDC implementation mechanisms, ranging from individual-level supply chain policies to collective action endeavors as well as jurisdictional approaches to sustainability, can be seen as novel and innovative variants of private regulatory governance that deserve greater scientific attention.

Using semi-structured interview data from across the palm oil supply chain, I aim to understand better what the advances and limitations of current implementation mechanisms are for addressing commodity-driven deforestation. In a second step, I draw on supply chain data as well as satellite imagery to assess the effectiveness of NDPE (no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation) policies in the Indonesian palm oil sector with regard to their aim of lowering palm-related deforestation.

In a third step, our group will collect producer-level survey data to understand what effects such commitments have on the ground, particularly on smallholder producers’ livelihoods. Here, we will investigate potential trade-offs between the effectiveness and equity of different implementation strategies, contrasting strategies of exclusion (e.g. of regions with high deforestation risk) with strategies of inclusion (e.g. through jurisdictional certification and producer outreach).

Constructing credible corporate commitments

In parallel, I am pursuing a theoretical inquiry into future-focused private governance via corporate commitments. Drawing on game theory, economic performativity theory, and Jens Beckert’s concept of “fictional expectations”, I ask under what conditions economic actors can co-create more sustainable futures by making credible commitments toward greener purchasing or production.

Traders as key sustainability governance actors in global agri-food value chains

Together with my colleague Sophia Carodenuto, I am also launching a new research agenda that focuses on traders – companies whose core business lies in the movement and exchange of agricultural commodities between producers and manufacturers – as key actors in linking corporate sustainability ambitions to on-the-ground impacts. As a first step toward future work on this underresearched topic, we have received a SSHRC Connection Grant to convene a conversation between academics and practitioners operating in this space (with a focus on coffee, cocoa and palm oil).

Past research foci

The effectiveness of market-driven regulatory sustainability governance in the coffee sector

My PhD dissertation “The effectiveness of market-driven regulatory sustainability governance. Assessing the design of private sustainability standards and their impacts on Latin American coffee farmers’ production practices“ evaluates the success of private certification schemes such as Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance in shaping more sustainable agri-food value chains in the coffee sector. Over 1.5 years of fieldwork, I co-designed and led the collection of over 1,900 farm-level observations in Honduras, Colombia, and Costa Rica. I compared the sustainability of certified farmers’ production practices with those of non-certified farmers through the use of a variety of econometric methods, including propensity score matching and linear and logit regression models. To explain the results and their variation between certification schemes and country settings, I conducted a quantitative meta-analysis and carried out over 60 semi-structured interviews with economic actors along the coffee value chain. Unchanged:

My results show that most private certification schemes failed to effectively internalize the environmental and social costs of sustainable production due to their acquiescence to the demands of powerful buyers. In consequence, the most sustainable practices show very little field-level adoption attributable to private regulatory governance, and farmers continue to suffer from low and highly volatile prices. I further find that existing market regulations, both at the international and national level, heavily influence results on the ground. Unchanged:

The results of this work are presented in my book “Selling sustainability short? The private governance of labor and the environment in the coffee sector“, published with Cambridge University Press. More information on the book can be found here.

Spatial adoption, power dynamics, and institutionalization of private governance

Parallel to my dissertation project, I have analyzed and published insights both on antecedents of institutional effectiveness on the ground – that is, standard adoption and the political economy of within-value chain power dynamics – as well as broader patterns of private governance institutionalization. My first-authored paper “Understanding coffee certification dynamics: A spatial analysis of voluntary sustainability standard proliferation” offered a first-time comparative analysis of regional adoption trends of private governance initiatives. In the first-authored piece “The evolution of power in the global coffee value chain and production network”, I evaluate different types of supply chain power, as well as their distribution and impacts. My qualitative work to map the coffee value chain and the evolution of its sustainability governance led to the single-authored publication “Assessing the institutionalization of private sustainability governance in a changing coffee sector”.