The Institutionalisation of Fair Trade

By Corinne Gendron, Veronique Bisaillon, Ana Isabel Otero Rance; Journal of Business Ethics , Volume 86 (1) , Springer Journals – Apr 1, 2009

I chose to review the paper: The Institutionalisation of Fair Trade: More than Just a Degraded Form of Social Action for its neutral and informative approach to Fair Trade. Gendron et al’s research looks at Fairtrade’s development by introducing the concept of institutionalisation.

It is important to note, however, that such institutionalisation is assumed and no data (whether secondary or primary) has been or is being collected and therefore no analysis is being conducted.

Note that the paper this time refers to Fair Trade as opposed to Fairtrade although the authors refer from time-to-time to the “fair trade” label. 

It is important to note that the paper was translated from French and Fairtrade and Fair Trade in French are expressed in the same way: “Commerce Equitable”; making the distinction between the certification scheme (Fairtrade) and the movement (Fair Trade) trickier. The lack of differentiation in the paper makes it hard to follow at times.

In their paper, Gendron et al position Fair Trade as “the emblematic figure of [a] new generation of social movement (…) influenc[ing] the economy towards political and social ends” (p.63). They argue that while tensions divide the Fair Trade movement around a “radical and militant” perspective versus a “softer and more commercial” one, situating Fair Trade within the broader context of globalisation allows for reconciliation of these two poles due to specific the modes of institutionalisation.

In presenting their argument, Gendron et al. start by reviewing the origins of Fair Trade. Interestingly, the authors portray Fair Trade as dissociated from, and the result of, different types of movements: the cooperative movement, charity trade, solidarity trade, developmental trade and benevolence trade. Some would argue, however, such movements represent the beginning of Fair Trade – a movement of its own – from which originated the Fairtrade certification scheme (which is quite a different process). 

While I am not convinced of the distinction made at the beginning of the section of this paper, in which the link between the Fair Trade movement and the Fairtrade certification scheme appears missing, the paper does very well in describing the origins of the certification scheme. 

On another note, it seems the authors are assuming and attributing the institutionalisation of the Fair Trade movement to its commercialisation through the certification scheme. It is assumed that the divide at the core of the Fair Trade movement between militant and commercial is reconciled through the certification of Fairtrade. Research has demonstrated otherwise.

The paper concludes on the institutionalisation of social movements. It proposes three ways in which social movements institutionalise, and on the implications for the Fair Trade movement. While the paper presents a few shortcomings in terms of the understanding of Fairtrade, its neutral and informative tone makes it an interesting one to start with.

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