Skip to main content

Corporate cooptation of organic and fair trade standards


Recent years have seen a substantial increase in alternative agrifood initiatives that attempt to use the market to curtail the negative social and environmental effects of production and trade in a globalized food system. These alternatives pose a challenge to capital accumulation and the externalization of environmental costs by large agribusiness, trading and retail firms. Yet the success of these alternatives also makes them an inviting target for corporate participation. This article examines these dynamics through a case study of the two most significant such food system alternatives—organics and fair trade—focusing on corporate involvement in establishing and renegotiating the standards undergirding these initiatives. We compare the development of and contestation over the standards for both certified organic and certified fair trade, with particular attention to the U.S. context. We provide a brief history of their parallel processes of rapid growth and market mainstreaming. We examine claims of cooptation by movement participants, as well as the divergences and similarities between the organic and fair trade cases. Analyzing these two cases provides useful insights into the strategic approaches that corporate firms have deployed to further capital accumulation and to defuse threats to their profit margins and to status quo production, pricing, labor, trading and retailing practices. It can also offer valuable lessons regarding the most effective means of responding to such counter-reforms and of protecting or reasserting the more transformative elements at the heart of these alternative systems.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    See the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International website at

  2. 2.

    As of this writing there were 20 NIs recognized by FLO, with others in the process of applying for recognition. FLO recently began referring to these entities as Licensing Initiatives (LIs).



Alternative trade organization


Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International


Licensing initiatives


Non governmental organization


National initiatives


National Organic Standards Board


Organic Consumers Association


Organic Foods Production Act of 1990


United States Department of Agriculture


  1. Allen, P., and M. Kovach. 2000. The capitalist composition of organic: The potential of markets in fulfilling the promise of organic agriculture. Agriculture and Human Values 17 (3): 221–232.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Anonymous. 2008. Health & wellness sales topped $102 billion in '07: study. Progressive Grocer, July 7.

  3. Bacon, C., and Coordinadora Latinoamericana y del Caribe de Pequeños Productores de Comercio Justo (CLAC). 2006. Estudio de costos y propuesta de precios para sostener el café, las familias productores y organizaciones certificadas por comercio justo en america latina y el caribe. Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: CLAC.

  4. Baden-Meyer, A. 2008. Testimony from the OCA to USDA on preserving organic standards and expanding organics. Accessed 3 July 2008.

  5. Bahra, P. 2009. Tea workers still waiting to reap fairtrade benefits. The Times (UK), Jan 2. Accessed 23 Feb 2009.

  6. Barrientos, S., M.E. Conroy, and E. Jones. 2007. Northern social movements and fair trade. In Fair trade: The challenges of confronting globalization, ed. L.T. Raynolds, D. Murray, and J. Wilkinson, 51–62. New York, NY: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Bastian, H. 2006. Keeping fair trade fair in Mexico. NACLA Report on the Americas 39 (6): 6.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Brown, M.B. 1993. Fair trade: Reform and realities in the international trading system. London: Zed.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Buck, D., C. Getz, and J. Guthman. 1997. From farm to table: The organic vegetable commodity chain of northern California. Sociologia Ruralis 37 (1): 3–20.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Campbell, D. 2001. Conviction seeking efficacy: Sustainable agriculture and the politics of co-optation. Agriculture and Human Values 18 (4): 353–363.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Conner, D. 2004. Beyond organic: Information provision for sustainable agriculture in a changing market. Journal of Food Distribution Research 35 (1): 34–39.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Crowther, B. 2005. Head of Communications, Fairtrade Foundation. E-mail from Fairtrade Foundation to fair-trade supporters. 7 Oct.

  13. Cummins, R. 2002. Is USDA organic grade B organic? Accessed 23 May 2008.

  14. Cummins, R., and A. Eidinger. 2006. USDA attempts to pack organic standards board with corporate agribusiness reps. Accessed 2 Jul 2008.

  15. Dal Bó, E. 2006. Regulatory capture: A review. Oxford Review of Economic Policy 22 (2): 203–225.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. DeLind, L.B. 2000. Transforming organic agriculture into industrial organic products: Reconsidering national organic standards. Human Organization 59 (2): 198–208.

    Google Scholar 

  17. DiMaggio, P.J., and W.W. Powell. 1983. The iron cage revisited: Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields. American Sociological Review 48 (2): 147–160.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. DuPuis, M.E., and S. Gillon. 2009. Alternative modes of governance: Organic as civic engagement. Agriculture and Human Values 26 (1–2): 43–56.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Eden Foods. 2006. Why Eden foods chooses not to use the USDA seal. Press Release, 19 June. Accessed 2 June 2008.

  20. Eilperin, J., and J. Black. 2008. USDA panel approves first rules for labeling farmed fishorganic.Washington Post 20 Nov: A21.

  21. Erickson, G. 2004. Raising the bar: Integrity and passion in life and business: The story of Clif Bar & Co. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

  22. Fair Trade Association of Australia and New Zealand (FTAANZ). 2007. FLO-Cert gets ISO 65 accreditation. Accessed 10 Jan 2009.

  23. Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO). 2007a. Global fairtrade sales increase by 40%, benefiting 1.4 million farmers worldwide. Accessed 29 Jul 2008.

  24. Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO). 2007b. Final FLO governance structure. Accessed 2 Jul 2008.

  25. Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO). 2008a. FLO standards committee members. Accessed 28 Dec 2008.

  26. Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO). 2008b. Product standards for hired labour. Accessed 11 Jan 2009.

  27. Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO). 2008c. FLO 2007 annual report: An inspiration for change. Bonn, Germany: Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International.

  28. Fantle, W. 2008. Cornucopia Institute’s complaints expose outlaw factory farms. Cooperative Grocer 134. Accessed 17 Aug 2008.

  29. Fetter, T.R., and J.A. Caswell. 2002. Variation in organic standards prior to the National Organic Program. American Journal of Alternative Agriculture 17 (2): 55–74.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Fiser, J. 2007. Denial of certifying agent’s right to appeal upheld. The National Agricultural Law Center, Sept 27. Accessed 17 June 2008.

  31. Food and Drink Weekly. 2003. OTA launches campaign to roll back ‘redefinition’ of organic. March 17. Accessed 19 Apr 2008.

  32. Fridell, M., I. Hudson, and M. Hudson. 2008. With friends like these: The corporate response to fair trade. Review of Radical Political Economy 40 (1): 8–34.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Fromartz, S. 2006. Organic, Inc.: Natural foods and how they grew. Orlando, FL: Harcourt.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Gamson, H. 1968. Power and discontent. Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Gamson, H. 1975. The strategy of social protest. Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Goigoi, P. 2008. Is fair trade becoming ‘fair trade lite’? Business Week, 18 June. Accessed 11 Mar 2009

  37. Goodman, D., and M. Goodman. 2007. Localism, livelihoods and the ‘post-organic’: Changing perspectives on alternative food networks in the United States. In Alternative food geographies: Representation and practice, ed. D. Maye, L. Holloway, and M. Kneafsey, 23–28. Oxford, UK: Elsevier Science.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Guthman, J. 2004a. Agrarian dreams: The paradox of organic farming in California. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Guthman, J. 2004b. The trouble with ‘organic lite’ in California: A rejoinder to the ‘conventionalisation’ debate. Sociologia Ruralis 44 (3): 301–316.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Habermas, J. 1985. The theory of communicative action, Volume 2. Lifeworld and system: A critique of functionalist reason. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Hatamiya, L.S. 1997. Proposed organic standards. Informational memorandum for the deputy secretary, USDA, 1 May. Accessed 16 Nov 2008.

  42. Heilbroner, R.L. 1986. The nature and logic of capitalism. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Howard, P.H. 2009. Consolidation in the North American organic food processing sector, 1997 to 2007. International Journal of Sociology of Food and Agriculture 16 (1): 13–30.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Ikerd, J. 1999. Organic agriculture faces the specialization of production systems; specialized systems and the economical stakes. Paper presented at Colloques de l’INRA, Lyon, France, 6–9 Dec. Accessed 3 Sept 2007.

  45. Jaffee, D. 2007. Brewing justice: Fair trade coffee, sustainability, and survival. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Kavilanz, P.B. 2008. The high price of going ‘organic’. CNNMoney, 23 Apr. Accessed 29 June 2008.

  47. Laffont, J.-J., and J. Tirole. 1991. The politics of government decision-making: A theory of regulatory capture. Quarterly Journal of Economics 106 (4): 1089–1127.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Lavigne, P. 2006. Is organic food the real deal? The Dallas Morning News, Jul 17. Accessed 2 June 2008.

  49. Lockie, S., K. Lyons, G. Lawrence, and D. Halpin. 2006. Going organic: Mobilising networks for environmentally responsible food production. Cambridge, MA: CABI.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  50. Lyson, T.A., G.W. Stevenson, and R. Welsh, eds. 2008. Food and the mid-level farm: Renewing an agriculture of the middle. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  51. Mansfield, B. 2004. Organic views of nature: The debate over organic certification for aquatic animals. Sociologia Ruralis 44 (2): 216–232.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. McKinney, M. 2007. Was Target’s organic milk just regular? Minneapolis Star Tribune, September 29. Accessed 23 Apr 2008.

  53. Mutersbaugh, T. 2005. Fighting standards with standards: Harmonization, rents, and social accountability in certified agrofood networks. Environment and Planning A 37 (11): 2033–2051.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Myers, S. 2008. The organic factor: Does organic certification equate to better quality production? Natural Products Insider, January 2. Accessed 10 Feb 2008.

  55. Ness, C. 2004. Organic food fight: Outcry over rule changes that allow more pesticides, hormones. San Francisco Chronicle 22 May: A-1.

  56. Novak, C. 2008. Can Wal-Mart do ‘local’? The retail giant is using in-state farmers in an attempt to soften its image. U.S. News and World Report 24 July. Accessed 28 Dec 2008.

  57. Obach, B. 2007. Theoretical interpretations of the growth in organic agriculture: Agricultural modernization or an organic treadmill? Society and Natural Resources 20 (3): 229–244.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. Public Law 701-624: 1990; Title 21, U.S. 1990 Farm Bill.

  59. Organic Trade Association (OTA). 2006. The Organic Trade Association 2006 manufacturer survey overview. Accessed 2 June 2008.

  60. Organic Trade Association (OTA). 2007. The Organic Trade Association 2007 manufacturer survey overview. Accessed 28 June 2008.

  61. Pollan, M. 2006. The omnivore’s dilemma: A natural history of four meals. New York, NY: Penguin Press.

    Google Scholar 

  62. Ransom, E. 2007. The rise of agricultural animal welfare standards as understood through a neo-institutional lens. International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food (Special Volume).

  63. Raynolds, L.T. 2000. Re-embedding global agriculture: The international organic and fair trade movements. Agriculture and Human Values 17 (3): 297–309.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. Raynolds, L.T., and J. Wilkinson. 2007. Fair trade in the agriculture and food sector: Analytical dimensions. In Fair trade: The challenges of confronting globalization, ed. L.T. Raynolds, D. Murray, and J. Wilkinson, 33–47. New York, NY: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  65. Renard, M.-C. 2005. Quality certification, regulation and power in fair trade. Journal of Rural Studies 21 (4): 419–431.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  66. Renard, M.-C., and V. Perezgrovas. 2007. Fair trade coffee in Mexico: At the center of the debates. In Fair trade: The challenges of confronting globalization, ed. L.T. Raynolds, D. Murray, and J. Wilkinson, 138–156. New York, NY: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  67. Revkin, A. 2004. The burning season: The murder of Chico Mendes and the fight for the Amazon. Washington, DC: Island Press.

    Google Scholar 

  68. Rogers, T. 2004. Small coffee brewers try to redefine fair trade. Christian Science Monitor, April 13. Accessed 5 June 2008.

  69. Scowcroft, B. 2006. The organic conversation begins anew (again). Greenmoney Journal 15 (2). Accessed 23 Mar 2008.

  70. Selznick, P. 1949 (1966). TVA and the grass roots. New York, NY: Harper.

  71. Shulman, S.W. 2003. An experiment in digital government at the United States national organic program. Agriculture and Human Values 20 (3): 253–265.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  72. Stigler, G. 1971. The theory of economic regulation. Bell Journal of Economics and Management Science 2: 3–21.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  73. Tucker, A. 2006. Fair enough? New Internationalist (395): 7.

  74. Vos, T. 2000. Visions of the middle landscape: Organic farming and the politics of nature. Agriculture and Human Values 17 (3): 245–256.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  75. Wal-Mart. 2006. Illinois’ Frey farms teams with Wal-Mart to celebrate America’s farmers (press release). 27 Sept. Accessed 28 Dec 2008.

  76. Wilson, S.J. 2007. Nonorganic ingredients get tentative OK. Los Angeles Times 23 June. Accessed 2 June 2008.

  77. Wolcott, J. 2002. An end to organic confusion? The Christian Science Monitor 16 Oct. Accessed 2 June 2008.

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Daniel Jaffee.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Jaffee, D., Howard, P.H. Corporate cooptation of organic and fair trade standards. Agric Hum Values 27, 387–399 (2010).

Download citation


  • Certification
  • Cooptation
  • Corporations
  • Fair trade
  • Organic
  • Social justice
  • Social movements
  • Standards