Rethinking fair trade: Narratives and counternarratives of poverty and partnerships

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1 Scopus citations


Since the introduction of product certification in the 1980s, fair trade has grown apart from its social justice roots and the focus has steadily shifted away from calls for institutional market reform, corporate accountability, and fair prices, and toward a celebratory embrace of poverty alleviation and income growth through market integration and business partnerships. This paper examines fair trade’s narratives of poverty and partnerships, focusing on the brand communication strategies employed by influential fair trade organizations and businesses. These are compared with how fair trade coffee producers in southern Mexico understand and practice partnership, demonstrating some of the ways in which the latter resist narrative framings which position them as entrepreneurial businesspeople first and cooperativistas second. The business partnerships between coffee buyers and producers are highly asymmetrical, and the partnerships that matter most for the Oaxacan coffee farmers are not with global businesses and certifiers, but instead with each other and their producer organizations. These relationships did not originate with fair trade, although, they are, in part, sustained by this system which supports democratically organized producer groups, the sharing of technical and market information, and communal management of the fair trade premium. In contrast to the organizations that certify and market their products, the paper demonstrates how farmers regard their precarious economic circumstances as an issue of social justice to be addressed through increased state support rather than market empowerment. The analytical juxtaposition of farmers’ attitudes with fair trade organizational priorities contributes to the expanding literature examining how fair trade policies are experienced on the ground.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationResearch in Economic Anthropology
Number of pages29
StatePublished - 2021

Publication series

NameResearch in Economic Anthropology
ISSN (Print)0190-1281

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 by Emerald Publishing Limited.


  • Agricultural development
  • Coffee
  • Fair trade
  • Mexico
  • Partnership
  • Poverty

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology
  • Economics and Econometrics


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