Voluntary sustainability standards are used as both a means of securing coffee supply by large coffee firms and a development intervention to address rural poverty and improve environmental management in the global south. Using a case-study approach, we have examined the interface between a value chain sustainability program and the livelihood trajectories of smallholder coffee producers in upland Sumatra. Our research found the program has had minimal impacts for coffee producers to date. The level of commitment required of producers appears incompatible with the particular way that coffee is embedded within local landscapes, livelihoods and poverty alleviation pathways. Various sustainability standards articulate a narrative of rural development underpinned by an assumption that agricultural modernisation is the preferred pathway out of poverty for rural households. As a result, there is some risk that sustainability programs may be inadvertently encouraging household investment in a particular kind of agriculture, which is intended to assist sustainability of supply for the exporter, but is poorly aligned with prevailing processes of poverty alleviation. These observations are based on a detailed study of agrarian change amongst the Semendo people of South Sumatra province, where processes of rural development are far more complex than the assumptions presented by mainstream sustainability standards.