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The Politics of Fair Trade



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Unfair competition, Fair trade foods, Food sovereignty


Book chapter.

By the time the fair trade movement celebrated the 20th anniversary of its founding in 2008, it had been transformed virtually beyond recognition. From a marginal European movement characterized by small ethical companies, non-profit charities, solidarity groups and alternative trading organizations (ATOs) selling coffee and handicrafts to a small group of politicized consumers through alternative world shops, fair trade has become an international market system with annual sales of nearly US $5,000m. (€3,500m.) (FLO 2010), reaching mass audiences of mainstream shoppers across the global North with a wide range of food and non-food products originating from both small producer co-operatives and large agribusiness plantations in nearly 60 nations. Some of the largest transnational food corporations now sell fair trade labelled products, in addition to thousands of smaller companies, and fair trade enjoys widespread consumer recognition in many countries. The fair trade system has also become institutionalized, with a large international certification and coordinating body establishing and enforcing generic and product-specific standards, as well as national certification and licensing bodies in 20 countries.

How do the concrete realities of the fair trade movement at 21 years square with the original visions and aspirations of the movement’s founders? Does fair trade’s success in sales and marketing terms correspond to an equal degree of effectiveness in transforming the material socio-economic (and ecological) conditions of life and work for the movement’s intended beneficiaries? And has it succeeded, even if marginally, in altering the highly inequitable terms of global trade for specific primary commodities, or the rules of global trade more generally?

It is instructive to take a brief look at a few of the early conceptualizations of fair trade’s aims. Many of the pioneering movement activists vocalized a vision of fair trade that involved the creation of an alternative to the capitalist market system, with distinct institutions that would operate alongside the structures of the deeply inequitable global market. Michael Barratt Brown, the founding chair of the ATOs TWIN and TWIN Trading in the United Kingdom, and author of

the first book on fair trade, describes the movement as operating both ‘in and against the market’ (1993: 156). Brown’s analysis, according to author Gavin Fridell, was informed by the insights of radical dependency theorists; he saw fair trade as an approach that could combat structural underdevelopment in the global South by creating an alternative to the ‘unequal exchange’ that plagued export commodity-dependent farmers and nations. Brown’s vision was that of a parallel market, operating on the basis of mutual solidarity between Northern consumers and Southern producers, the latter of whom would be protected from the noxious effects of commodity speculation by guaranteed base prices. However, he also strongly believed that strict market regulation by interventionist states was essential to achieving this vision of a fair market (Fridell 2007: 42–46). Pauline Tiffen, another British movement pioneer, described an early fair trade conference organized by TWIN in the 1980s, in which ‘the choice of [the term] fair was a deliberate decision to broaden a concept that for us was quite anti-capitalist. Like alternative as in alternative system, a parallel system to the market, a challenge to the capitalist system’ (Tiffen 2005). As fair trade began to become institutionalized, however, beginning in the late 1980s with the creation of the Max Havelaar certification for coffee, this challenge to the market underwent a substantial deradicalization, in a conscious strategy to increase the volume of fair trade sales through mainstream retail venues and under existing commercial brands. Fridell asserts that in this process, fair trade became compatible with—rather than antithetical to—the neoliberal economic policies that were dramatically undermining living conditions for the rural (and urban) poor across the global South (Fridell 2007: 53). However, a concern with working to change the terms of the broader unjust global trading system remained for many participants.


This is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in the book The Politics of Fair Trade. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in The Politics of Fair Trade. London: Routledge.

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