Certifications Empirics

Can certifications become the new normal?

This post is based on Janina’s ‘Assessing the institutionalization of private sustainability governance in a changing coffee sector’. https://doi.org/10.1111/rego.12212

Certifications ask customers to meet XYZ requirements. However, for certifications to change entire sectors/industries, one or more of the following things need to happen:

  1. Normative institutionalisation: all actors in the industry (including suppliers, distributors, and consumers) acknowledge responsibility for products being as sustainable as certifications require regardless of whether the products are certified or not.
  2. Organisational institutionalisation: certifications become so influential that other actors have no choice but to use their services.
  3. Practice institutionalisation: certifications become the new normal and are used automatically.

In this article, Janina queries the extent to which coffee certifications have become institutionalised.

The coffee industry is a good place to do this type of research because it’s one of the se/ctors where certification is most institutionalised. If not here, where type-of-thing.

Janina finds evidence to think that coffee certifications are relatively institutionalised at the normative and institutional level, but not at the practice level.

A variety of actors increasingly frame their practices as sustainable and, for the time being, certifications are the most straightforward way in which these actors can demonstrate their commitment. However, these same actors also increasingly de-emphasise certifications’ role:

These signs point toward the continued contestation of certifications as a legitimate avenue of sustainability governance in the coffee sector,

p. 9.

Janina gives plausible explanations for the lack of institutionalisation at the practice level. I won’t summarise them all, but I can say that my favourite is the lack of sustained demand for certified products.

Certified coffee is not particularly more-expensive than non-certified coffee. Yet, in my experience, it is easier to find people that go out their way to have coffee in a ‘hipster’ than people that care about their coffee’s certification.

Additionally, Janina notes in the conclusions that there may be a trade-off between a certification becoming normatively and organisationally institutionalised and it becoming a normal practice. This may advice against wanting certifications to get customers by any and all means necessary in the short term, as this may affect their ability to deliver improvement in the long term. Or it may not – at this point, no one knows!

Header photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.