Ensuring sustainable consumption and production is one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Sustainable consumption can be supported through regulatory processes. Voluntary private regulatory schemes claiming to contribute to sustainability are a rapidly growing form of regulation. We study one such voluntary sustainability scheme in order to look at the opportunities and challenges this type of regulatory process poses using Abbot and Snidal’s regulatory standard-setting framework (2009). Specifically, we examine direct trade voluntary schemes in the coffee industry. To do this, we selected six leading direct trade firms in the US and Scandinavia, analyzed firms’ websites in 2015 and 2016 and conducted interviews with four of the firms. We found direct trade as a voluntary scheme was an attempt to market and codify good sourcing practices. US-based founding firms have distanced themselves from the term due to perceived co-optation, which we conceptualize as the failure of industry to self-regulate and argue was enabled by the re-negotiation of standards without the power to enforce or penalize misuse of the term. Firms reacted to co-optation by releasing data to consumers directly; we argue this puts too much responsibility on consumers to monitor and enforce standards. By contrast, Scandinavian firms maintained standards enforced through trademark nationally. Both US and Scandinavian contexts demonstrate a weakness of firm-led agenda-setting for sustainable development in that schemes may be optimized for a particular business concern—in this case quality—rather than to achieve sustainable development goals. This is problematic if schemes are marketed on contribution to the public good when incentives within the scheme are not aligned to produce an optimal result for the public good.
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