PhD thesis: „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“
My PhD thesis examines the efficacy of private 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 of these countries. 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.
Private 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 implementation costs. Furthermore, the mainstreaming of certified and verified coffee has led to a precipitous drop in price premiums.
Without this central market incentive for improvement, do certification schemes still increase social and environmental sustainability over the regional average? And if they do, what institutional design characteristics of standards, and what external framework conditions, contribute to such outcome additionality?
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 private sustainability standards are implemented within this setting. Using coffee as a case study, it contributes a novel perspective on the effectiveness of private sustainability governance within buyer-driven international value chains, and raises questions whether the way sustainability governance is conceptualized and implemented today needs to be revised in order for it to achieve maximum impact.
The relevance of this work has been recognized by the ECPR Standing Group on Regulatory Governance, which awarded a paper summarizing the main analytical findings the 2018 Giandomenico Majone Prize for the best paper written by a junior scholar. According to the awards committee, “the paper posed important questions on the effectiveness of private regulatory governance; the data collection effort was vast, yet conducted with precision and care; the methods were rigorous and the paper had a high level of real-world applicability, given the direct questions on regulatory compliance and effectiveness.”
The TRANSSUSTAIN project
I am writing my thesis within the TRANSSUSTAIN project of the University of Münster’s Institute of 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.
EKLIPSE Expert Working Group member
I am a co-chair of the EKLIPSE Expert Working Group on business activities’ impacts on biodiversity. EKLIPSE is a knowledge and learning mechanism to support better decision-making regarding biodiversity and ecosystem services. The request to be addressed is titled “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?” and was made by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.
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 sections of the report “Unravelling the Food–Health Nexus: Addressing practices, political economy, and power relations to build healthier food systems“. Currently, I am collaborating on a political economy analysis of successful transitions to local and regional agroecological food systems.
Earth System Governance Network
I am also a Research Fellow of the Earth System Governance Network. The Earth System Governance research alliance is the largest social science research network in the area of governance and global environmental change and takes up the challenge of exploring political solutions and novel, more effective governance mechanisms to cope with the current transitions in the biogeochemical systems of the planet.
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