A New Swiss Sustainable Coffee Platform Should Not Charge Civil Society and Academic Representatives to Participate

Guy Parmelin giving a presentation at the Swiss Sustainable Coffee Platform
June 7, 2024

Coffee is big business in Switzerland, where I live and work. Over half of the world’s coffee trade happens here, and Switzerland exports coffee worth more than three billion Swiss Francs each year. How should this business be done so that it respects the environment and the rights of the people who grow coffee around the world?

This week, I attended the launch of the Swiss Sustainable Coffee Platform (SSCP). This new multi-stakeholder initiative (MSI) includes representatives of the Swiss coffee industry, civil society, and the State Secretariat of Economic Affairs. The objective of the platform is to consolidate and scale up existing sustainability efforts.

The SSCP aims to promote measurable progress in developing countries where the coffee beans are grown. This will require setting and enforcing specific standards and measuring progress over time on key issues such as child labor, forced labor and living wages.

Ensuring that human rights standards are respected along the entire value chain is also the theme of new “due diligence” legislation in Europe. MSIs are ideal platforms to flesh out the requirements set by mandatory human rights due diligence (mHRDD) laws. MSIs can engage key stakeholders to develop industry-specific standards, which will be needed to measure corporate human rights performance and determine whether due diligence has been adequate.

In a recent white paper, we concluded that governments should support a “smart mix” of private and public regulation. In this context, MSIs can be considered necessary complements to mHRDD requirements, which typically outline a process but do not establish substantive standards for companies to follow.

The Swiss government has an impressive track record of providing support to MSIs, including the Voluntary Principles in the extractives industry, the International Code of Conduct Association for Private Security Providers, and the Swiss Sustainable Cocoa Platform.

Over the past year, the NYU Center’s sister institution, the Geneva Center for Business and Human Rights, which I run, contributed to the foundational discussions about the SSCP. We focused on the governance structures of the organization. Too many MSIs are “multi-stakeholder” in name only. They either don’t include all relevant stakeholders or don’t give equal decision-making power to all participants.

Civil society and academia are often underrepresented. These organizations typically are stretched for time and resources, yet their contribution is essential to establish legitimacy. Some MSIs, such as the U.S.-based Fair Labor Association, already reimburse travel expenses for civil society organizations and they go as far as considering to support civil society organizations with stipends to ensure that they have the means to engage.

The SSCP did not get this right. It demands that all stakeholder groups pay a membership fee. Even if the membership fees are nominal, charging civil society and academia shows that the Swiss coffee sector has yet to fully recognize the worth of such a unique collaboration. Without civil society and academia, there would be no MSI. The time and expertise these organizations bring to the table are highly valuable. They should not be discouraged by having to pay to gain entrance.


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