Book review: Changing Big Business

By Anna Hutchens

Guest contributor: Cheryl Kernot

Changing Big Business: The Globalisation of the Fair Trade Movement is a first rate contribution to international discourse on the movement’s continuing evolution. It is authored by Australian, Dr Anna Hutchens, the Director of the Fair Trade Program, Centre for Governance, Knowledge and Development at ANU. As Chair of the Fair Trade Association of Australia and New Zealand I express my shared interest in the topic. 

In content terms Hutchens traverses the Fair Trade movement’s pioneers, their innovations in commercial Fair Trade Organisations and brand companies, and the evolution of governance in the movement’s international associations, The International Fair Trade Association (IFAT) and the global Fair Trade Labelling Organisation (FLO.)

In the first chapter Hutchens “re-thinks power and empowerment”, examining the way in which the traditional “power over” process, aimed at maintaining the status quo is challenged by those in the fair trade movement who choose to work around and independently of institutional politics to build new structures.  This is “power beyond” and it utilises network opportunities and connections. The book takes a primary interest in “game-playing as it manifests defiance in a form that brings about radical change that leads to the creation of new institutions and structures at the transnational level.

 Chapter two applies “power over” to an examination of global power in world markets through the history of the global coffee market including the emergence of brand-based global business. 

Chapter three, which looks at the history of fair trade and places it in the context of free trade theory and reality, is a particularly important discussion. It describes fair trade as “political activism” and “alternative trade.” It accounts for and examines the establishment of product certification and the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation and the way in which this has driven the mainstreaming of fair trade from 2000 onwards. 

The following chapters look at the tensions and inconsistencies that have emerged since mainstreaming and examine the two consequent models of fair trade: an organizational model and a product certification model. Interestingly these are tensions existing in the current Australian movement. 

One of the book’s strengths is its use of original in-depth empirical data; the author travelled and conversed with a “diverse group of actors involved in fair trade located in Europe, the USA and Latin America. She also had access to documents, leaflets, annual reports, draft policy documents and the minutes of meetings allowing her to document in-depth the story of the movement and to posit theoretical insights about the process of social change that it offers. 

I found the end notes equally interesting as the chapters they referred to and enjoyed the appendix: fair trade on the political agenda, discovering the European Parliament’s resolution promoting fair trade and solidarity in North South trade as early as 1994!

A social Innovation of 40 years, offering market access to small-scale producers in developing countries on beneficial terms warrants this original analysis. It is both an academic treatise and a readable account of what’s driving fair trade at the consumer, business and movement levels. The book’s extension of the contemporary analysis of power discourse and its role in driving global social solutions is fresh and useful.

And it gives context to why those in the fair trade movement will choose to work around the status quo of a free trade system and a World Trade Organisation that has failed to give priority to wage justice and environmental practices of farmers and artisan crafts of the developing world.

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