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Demand for and supply of “sustainable” coffee (and other commodities) have grown markedly for two decades, as has the literature analyzing the effects of voluntary sustainability standards for coffee. The evidence for assessing the impacts for smallholder producers and the environment remains relatively weak, however. A relatively small number of studies use methods that allow researchers to attribute observed outcomes to sustainability certifications. This paper reviews research from the past decade on the effects of coffee sustainability schemes to see what we have learned about the impact of such schemes, and whether positive livelihood effects are mainly the result of relatively better off households choosing to participate. Overall, the available research suggests that certification schemes can be beneficial, but context matters, and the poorest, most vulnerable smallholder producers are able to comply with sustainability standards only with substantial external help.

The data used in this paper is available here: https://www.cgdev.org/sites/default/files/elliott-coffee-sustainability-data.xlsx

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