Weak Coffee: Certification and Cooptation in the Fair Trade Movement
This article explores the case of the international fair trade movement, which aims to change the inLequitable terms of global trade in commodities for small farmers, artisans, and waged laborers.
The sociological literature on social movement organizations (SMOs) has come to recognize that under neoliberal globalization, many SMOs have moved from an emphasis on the state as the locus of change toward a focus on corporations as targets. This shift has led some SMOs to turn to forms of market-based private regulatory action. The use of one such tactic—-voluntary, third-party product certification—-has grown substantially, as SMOs seek ways to hold stateless firms accountable. This article explores the case of the international fair trade movement, which aims to change the inequitable terms of global trade in commodities for small farmers, artisans, and waged laborers. Drawing from interviews with a range of fair trade participants, document analysis, and media coverage, the article describes fair trade’s growing relationship with multinational coffee firms, particularly Starbucks and Nestlé. It explores intra-movement tensions over the terms for and the effects of corporate participation in fair trade, and illuminates tensions between conceptualizations of fair trade as movement, market, and system. The article makes two arguments. First, while fair trade has succeeded partially in re-embedding market exchange within systems of social and moral relations, it has also proved susceptible to the power of corporate actors to disembed the alternative through a process of movement cooptation. Second, I argue that cooptation takes a unique form in the context of social movements whose principal tools to achieve social change are certification and labeling: it occurs primarily on the terrain of standards, in the form of weakening or dilution.