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“Some are more fair than others”: fair trade certification, development, and North–South subjects

Abstract

At the same time as fair trade certified products are capturing an increasing market share, a growing number of scholars and practitioners are raising serious questions about who benefits from certification. Through a critique of north–south narratives, this paper draws on contemporary themes in fair trade scholarship to draw out different ways of thinking about fair trade outside of the dichotomous north–south framing. I argue that, through the creation of fair trade subjects of the “global north” and “global south,” certification has normalized and naturalized dichotomous power relations. The primary concern of this paper is to demonstrate the problems with situating certification and scholarship in the north–south binary and to push examination toward a more nuanced analysis of how certification and development are shaped in-place. This intervention is important for assisting with stepping away from long-standing debates regarding the effectiveness of certification, and additionally in contributing to critical thinking on economic development more broadly.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. For the purposes of this paper I am explicitly addressing fair trade certification and not the broader social movement to make trade more fair (unless otherwise specified). The movement to make trade more fair has been an important contributor to the development and deployment of fair trade certification, however, in the past decade the broader goals of the social movement and third-party certifiers have diverged (see Dolan 2010).

  2. Here I have borrowed from Orwell (1954) in recognition of the controlling tendencies of discourse.

  3. In this vein, the work of Getz and Shreck (2006) on “place-based understanding of certification” offers one of the first major critiques of fair trade and is a nuanced analysis of the meanings mobilized in certification vis-á-vis localized producer socio-economic realities.

  4. Original ATO purchases of fair trade goods attempted to be 100 % fair trade. In the fair trade coffee marketplace, a number of coffee bean purchasers that have been involved since the 1980s still attempt to purchase 100 % of their beans at fair trade premiums contrary to their mainstream counterparts. Compare 2008 purchases of fair trade certified coffee: Equal Exchange and Cooperative Coffees at 100 % versus Starbucks at 5.14 % and Nestle at .0025 % (Howard and Jaffee 2013, p. 77).

  5. Emphasis added (cf. Bacon 2010; Becchetti and Huybrechts 2007; Blowfield 1999; Blowfield and Dolan 2010; Bryant and Goodman 2004; Davies et al. 2009; Dolan 2010; Fisher 2007, 2009, 2010; Fridell 2004; Hudson and Hudson 2003; Hutchens 2011; Jaffee et al. 2004; Levi and Linton 2003; Low and Davenport 2005; Lyon 2006, 2011; Newhouse 2011; Nicholls and Opal 2005; Raynolds 2009; Raynolds et al. 2004, 2007; Renard 1999; Shreck 2005; Taylor 2005).

  6. Indeed, many studies assess consumer behavior within countries of the so-called “global north,” and producer benefits in the so-called “global south,” this reinforces the problematic binary of a consuming north and a producing south (for exceptions see work on domestic fair trade: Brown and Getz 2008; Jaffee et al. 2004). In addition, both Jaffee (2007) and Fridell (2007a) have critiqued the labor practices of companies selling fair trade coffee, largely focusing on the US and Canada, drawing attention to disparities in-place in the so-called “global north” further fracturing a bi-modal separation of consumer and producer subjects.

  7. cf. Bryant and Goodman (2004), Elson (1999), Hudson and Hudson (2003), Jaffee et al. (2004), Lyon (2006), Raynolds (2000, 2002, 2012).

  8. Some scholars (see Bryant and Goodman 2004; Varul 2008) contend that fair trade certification acts as both a way to defetishize commodity relations and commodify consumer-producer linkages, or otherness (Goodman 2004).

  9. As Goodman points out, livelihood struggles become fetishized (2004, p. 896) and farmers take on the mantle of a particular producer-subject.

  10. Although fair trade certification, at its inception, was originally restricted to small-producer cooperatives it grew to include plantation-produced commodities that were deemed unable to be sourced in large quantities from small producers (tea and bananas for example).

  11. These first critiques addressed the effectiveness of fair trade as a tool of economic development and considered whether it calibrated with the “deep ruts” of previous imperial intervention [as suggested by Freidberg (2003b, p. 98)].

  12. It should be noted that FLO has producer representation on its board and the General Assembly (also, the percentage of producer representatives has increased in the last decade) and in all documentation states that standards are created in consultation with producers; however, there is still a strong imbalance in representation (see Renard and Loconto 2013, p. 56).

  13. This also opens up potential new lines of empirical inquiry into how farmers deploy alternative economic imaginaries even as they mobilize under US and European certification standards of production and sale and in international markets more broadly.

  14. Christopher Bacon (2010) notes that the movement to make trade fair is still an important place for asking questions about what constitutes an alternative form of trade relationship.

  15. Yet, at the same time as the SPP makes attempts to distance certification strategies from contemporary neoliberal development models it is still operating within a neoliberal marketplace, which makes it even more important to consider the place-based politics of certification when asking questions about how to make trade more fair.

  16. Josh Fisher in his work on the meanings of fair trade concludes that fair trade is a “debate,” which opens up space for conversations about what values (outside of exchange value) matter in trade (2010, p. 352).

  17. Catherine Dolan noted that fair trade discourses are so well incorporated within the neoliberal market system that the possible creation of alternatives or more just exchange relations between the “north–south” is significantly reduced (2010, p. 41).

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Acknowledgments

I am thankful to Alec Murphy and Lise Nelson for their helpful comments on drafts of this paper. Thank you as well to Joe Jasper for discussing, at length, the common themes of fair trade. I am also grateful to Brad Simantel for drafting Fig. 1.

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Naylor, L. “Some are more fair than others”: fair trade certification, development, and North–South subjects. Agric Hum Values 31, 273–284 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-013-9476-0

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Keywords

  • Fair trade
  • Development
  • Global north–south
  • Certification
  • Geopolitics