Who cares about sustainability and why?: motivations to care about ethical labels on coffee from the perspectives of consumers, industry professionals and Honduran smallholder coffee growers

Szalai, Krisztina (2017) Who cares about sustainability and why?: motivations to care about ethical labels on coffee from the perspectives of consumers, industry professionals and Honduran smallholder coffee growers. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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Abstract

Certification schemes have become widely adopted across the coffee industry and are thought to act as a mechanism for reducing poverty, conservation of environmental assets and well-being of agricultural producers and workers. These sustainability credentials also allow retailers and manufacturers to use certifications to differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace. My research focused on understanding the perceived value of voluntary certification standards in the coffee sector, with particular emphasis on the motivations of key stakeholders to care about social and environmental challenges within the coffee supply chain. By investigating the extent to which certification standards are capable of bridging the geographic and information gap between production and consumption of an agricultural commodity, this research investigates relating to moral motivations of caring-at-a-distance, and highlights limitations of voluntary certification standards to eradicate poverty and achieve large-scale conservation in smallholder-dominated coffee-production landscapes.



The standard conceptual model for certification schemes is based on two underlying assumptions. Firstly, consumers are expected to prioritise the sustainability credentials of a product over other attributes such as taste and price. Secondly, certified products attain a price premium which is expected to improve living standards for producers and workers and serve as financial incentives for smallholder communities to protect valuable ecosystems on and around agricultural farmlands. In this thesis, I aimed to test both assumptions through a combination of methodological approaches including questionnaire surveys, participant observation and interviews. The findings show that both assumptions are problematic. On the one hand, in order to be able to supply particular export markets, producers are expected to comply with an increasing number of certification standards. While compliance with these standards provide some improvement in price levels and access to higher-value markets, the cost of complying with certification standards is putting pressure on producers, especially on those who would benefit from certification the most. On the other hand, uptake of certifications is expected to be driven by consumer demand. However, my results suggest that consumer demand for certified products and their interest in the wellbeing of geographically distant people and places might be more limited than previously thought. The findings are consistent with the argument that the perceived sensory quality of a food product often plays a more influential role in consumer decision-making processes than any associated ethical or sustainability claims.



While the link between certification standards and product quality is understudied empirically, the industry experts interviewed felt that the quality of certified coffee is mediocre at best and this lack of connection between certification standards and coffee quality limits producers’ ability to improve their livelihoods. My research also highlighted the problematic nature of simplistic conceptions of community-based conservation and development efforts, which fail to consider socio-economic inequalities and complex power relations in resource-poor rural populations. The interviews with key stakeholders in the coffee industry revealed a shift in agenda, where formerly, attitudes to sustainable trading focused more on the social and ethical issues in production communities, to a broader ideal which brings together social responsibility and environmental sustainability into one conceptual framework. The social and environmental principles of certification schemes are increasingly being seen as an essential aspect of sustainable sourcing; however, their rigid market control mechanisms and considerable bureaucracy are gradually becoming seen as unsustainable. Although certification schemes are likely to remain as an important facet of the coffee industry, the emphasis is changing from mere standards compliance to long-term trading relationships based on transparency, traceability and communication between different stakeholders of the supply chain.



The findings of this study are consistent with arguments in the literature that currently popular certification schemes (in their present form) cannot cope with all cultural, economic and structural inefficiencies within commodity sectors. While certification schemes can and certainly will continue to develop and evolve, mere reliance on voluntary standards compliance is unlikely to be able to deliver long-term sustainability within the sector. Nonetheless, certifications can be part of a larger toolbox for delivering sustainability outcomes on the ground, provided that the costs and trade-offs of supporting sustainability efforts are consistent with the benefits distributed to all key stakeholder groups along the chain.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Field, Richard
Jewitt, Sarah
Keywords: coffee trade, honduras, coffee industry, ethical labels, ethical trading
Subjects: H Social sciences > HD Industries. Land use. Labor
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Social Sciences, Law and Education > School of Geography
Item ID: 41316
Depositing User: Szalai, Krisztina
Date Deposited: 19 Jul 2017 04:40
Last Modified: 15 Oct 2017 07:42
URI: http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/id/eprint/41316

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