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.