The Collective Formulation and Effectiveness of Public and Private Sustainability Standards

Posted: 27 Jun 2007

See all articles by Daniele Giovannucci

Daniele Giovannucci

Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA)

Stefano Ponte

Copenhagen Business School


In the former age of national capitalism, a measure of "market fairness" was embedded in a normative framework generated by government, labor unions, and perhaps religious authority. In the current age of global capitalism, new actors such as NGOs, industry associations and public-private partnerships provide the normative framework that corporations use for "social legitimacy". In this context, certain standard-setting processes operate as new forms of "social contract" where the state, rather than being directly involved between the parties, may provide a form of basic guarantee while (more or less accountable) NGOs and firms are in charge of hammering out the bargains. This article examines the dynamics of this new configuration through the case study of "sustainability" initiatives in the coffee sector. It addresses four questions:(1) Are these standards effective in communicating information and creating new markets? (2) To what extent do they embed elements of collective and private interests? (3) Is "sustainability" content actually delivered to their intended beneficiaries? and (4)What is the role of public policy in addressing the shortcomings?

Keywords: standard, social, environment, sustainability, economic, certifications, fair trade, organic, coffee, Starbucks, Rainforest Alliance, Utz, agriculture policy

Suggested Citation

Giovannucci, Daniele and Ponte, Stefano, The Collective Formulation and Effectiveness of Public and Private Sustainability Standards. Food Policy Journal, Special Issue, Private Agri-food Standards: Implications for Food Policy and the Agri-food Systems, 2005, Available at SSRN:

Daniele Giovannucci (Contact Author)

Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA) ( email )

United States


Stefano Ponte

Copenhagen Business School ( email )

Solbjerg Plads 3
Frederiksberg C, DK - 2000

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