Hidden Hands in the Market: Ethnographies of Fair Trade, Ethical Consumption, and Corporate Social Responsibility: Volume 28


Table of contents

(18 chapters)
click here to view access options
click here to view access options

List of contributors

Pages vii-viii
click here to view access options


Pages ix-xi
click here to view access options

Always on the lookout for good material for the REA series, at the end of March, 2007, I contacted Geert De Neve about a workshop he and his colleagues, Peter Luetchford and Jeffrey Pratt, were preparing to host in late April at the University of Sussex. Word of the workshop had initially come to me via the Society for Economic Anthropology Listserv months earlier. At the time I was tied up with Volume 26, a health-related installment, and so had only hoped to pick up a few quality papers for a later volume, thinking that they could perhaps be grouped into a special section together. Fortunately, however, I got much more.

The first theme is the “problem” of personal relations in the economy. Under neo-liberalism the Market is treated as universal, a trans-historical and trans-cultural entity; it is naturalised and reified, rather than thought of as a set of social relations; it is treated as a given rather than the result of a historical process with complex social actors. This view of the Market dovetails with a particular understanding of the individual, as driven primarily by a (universal and naturalised) desire to maximise material well-being and seek out value for money, while an “invisible hand,” rather than known personal needs, provides the mechanism to relate supply to demand.

Ethical consumption exemplifies thinking locally and acting globally, and the political economy in which it exists makes its ethics problematic. This chapter uses ecotourism to illustrate two aspects of thinking locally in ethical consumption. One is the local institutions and practices that this form of consumption reflects, embodied in the Western commercial capitalism that provides what Westerners consume ethically. Ethical consumption extends the reach of that local capital and its logic. The second is the local understandings and values it reflects, embodied in the desires of ethical consumers and met by commodity producers and the institutions that influence them. Ethical consumption does not, however, only impose local institutions and values globally; but it also shapes local consumers, by portraying individual market choice as an appropriate vehicle for bringing about an ethical world, thereby diverting attention from other sorts of ethical action.

Concern about the agro-industrial food system has generated movements, which reconnect producers and consumers, either through alternative distribution networks or through providing histories of each quality foodstuff. Although these movements share a romantic discourse, they have a range of objectives and a more complex relationship to the mainstream than first appears. The article analyses particularly the concept of authenticity, first in representations of food, then more widely as a value which links production and consumption. The material illustrates a wider analysis (in Graeber, Harvey) of the co-existence of monetary and non-monetary value in an economy dominated by the commodity form, and following from this sets out the different judgements, which have been made about the transformative political potential of these movements.

This chapter examines the commercial handicrafts market from Bali, Indonesia to the United States. Using ethnographic examples gathered from research among handicrafts producers, fair trade activists and handicrafts distributors I explore the influence of intermediaries (buyers, distributors, designers) in determining the cultural and economic value of ethnic handicrafts sold in the international marketplace. Over the past two decades, the village of Tegallalang has diversified its crafts industry to specialize in the mass-production of non-Balinese “ethnic art” (e.g., Native American dreamcatchers, Moroccan furniture, and African masks). While Balinese view the global handicrafts market as an opportunity to pursue cosmopolitan, modern, and middle-class identities, this chapter discusses how non-Balinese intermediaries regularly engage in forms of cultural capital that assert their dominance over handicrafts producers in the global South. The work of a Balinese fair trade organization is also examined in this chapter, and their efforts to redirect consumer attention away from the ethnocentric categories of authenticity and tradition and instead focus on workers’ rights and fair compensation.

This chapter concerns itself with a garment factory in Trinidad, West Indies, producing brand-name clothing for the Eastern Caribbean market. Workers in this factory not only stitch garments for an hourly wage; but also stealthily operate a secondary assembly line, creating precise duplicates of the factory's products for themselves to take home and wear. Manufactured on the shop-floor alongside “legitimate” production, the copied garments are identical in every way to the genuine ones they mimic. In this chapter, I argue that workers have created a “loop” in the value chain: a simultaneous moment in which they are both producers and consumers of the factory's products. While “genuine” garments circulate through market-capitalist networks of exchange, copied garments only circulate through social networks – thereby accruing and representing forms of “value” that are distinct from market value. By looping the value chain, factory workers create non-market values alongside market-oriented ones, showing both sets of values to be interdependent. Workers’ own commentary on these processes offers a unique window onto contested meanings of “value” at work on the shop-floor.

Building on an ethnographic study of ethical consumption discourses and practices among activists and entrepreneurs in Hungary this chapter looks at how actors reflect critically on the current state of the Hungarian society by contrasting it to an image of Western Europe as a locus of consumer consciousness, civic activism, and sustainable economic practices. Such an opposition allows for the expression of various hopes, desires, and frustrations about the seemingly never ending process of post-socialist transition and at once provide a chance to mediate the contradictions inherent in contemporary practices of ethical consumption. While ethical consumption might offer itself as a global phenomenon, it is always practiced in local contexts with their particular struggles, histories, and trajectories. This chapter tries to contribute to the literature on ethical consumption by tracing the various meanings and values that are being attached to it in a “newly born consumer society.”

Fair trade commonly focuses on the figure of the smallholding peasant producer. The effectiveness of this as a strategy lies in the widespread appeal of an economy based upon independent family producers trying to secure livelihoods in impersonal and exploitative global commodity markets. But the attempt by fair trade to personalise economic relationships between coffee producers and consumers diverts attention away from aspects of the political economy of production for the market. This chapter examines a rural Costa Rican coffee economy that has supplied fair trade markets since the 1980s. Documenting differences in landholdings, the range of activities farmers engage in, and the relationship between landowners and landless labourers, women, and migrant harvesters from Nicaragua reveals differentiation and tensions that are obscured in the “smallholder” model invoked by fair trade.

This chapter contrasts the representation of Third World farmers in Fair Trade marketing campaigns with data drawn from long-term fieldwork involving cocoa producers in Ghana and evidence provided by older anthropological monographs on these communities. In doing so, it practically illustrates the disparity between global assumptions and local perspectives on production and consumption. The key contention underlying this chapter is that the representation of producers as needy, helpless, and disgruntled with multinational corporations is deeply problematic. Such a representation reveals a significant and somewhat concerning discrepancy between the lives of farmers and the narratives displayed in Western campaigns for trade justice. By using fieldwork data and earlier anthropological literature showing the determination, ingenuity, and far-sighted strategies of cocoa farmers in Ghana, this chapter demonstrates that producers in the Third World are not the passive and helpless individuals they are sometimes portrayed as.

In the United States, the increasing availability of hormone, antibiotic, and pesticide-free food is largely limited by price and proximity to the upper and middle classes. Similarly, the burgeoning of urban farmers’ markets and other direct marketing venues tend to benefit those who can afford locally raised food. Attempts to rectify this disparity are underway in the movement to link small farmers with residents of low-income neighborhoods in Louisville, Kentucky's largest city. Incipient commercialization and processing channels are intended to aid area farmers as they make the difficult transition out of tobacco dependency, and simultaneously to provide people living in Louisville's food deserts with affordable, locally produced foods. In this activist marketplace, symbiotic and trusting relationships are essential. I explore these issues through a case study of a new farmer–owner food distribution business, one designed to profit while growing the local food system.

Almost on a daily basis newspapers and magazines tell us of the exploitative circumstances under which workers produce garments for the global market. While local trade unions, international NGOs, and corporate social responsibility (CSR) officers claim to act in the interests of garment workers, the latter continue to lack voice and representation in their everyday struggles for better and fairer employment. Focusing on a South Indian garment cluster, the article explores the reasons why key labour rights, such as the freedom of association, keep being violated, and why local trade union and international NGO activists fail to prevent such violations. Through the lens of a major labour dispute, we consider the decline of a once successful trade union and the challenges of emerging local–international activist collaborations. The article concludes that for union, NGO, and corporate interventions to be successful in the context of a liberalising state, the political economy of labour has to be taken into account, and labour struggles have to be understood within their political and historical context.

This chapter analyses the private financial sector's policy responses, lending practices and various forms of engagement with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), communities and institutional clients involved in controversial commodity industries. The chapter demonstrates that secrecy plays a constitutive role in this engagement. For investment banks, client-confidentiality is the ultimate limit to transparency. At the same time, NGOs campaign to make public and reveal links between investment banks and clients in commodity industries. The chapter also explores techniques within the financial sector for the assessment of social and environmental risk. The chapter argues that these techniques combine both practices of uncertainty and practices of risk. For civil society organisations, NGOs and local communities, these techniques remain problematic, and various campaigns question both the robustness of the financial sector's social risk screening methods as well as the sustainability of the investments themselves.

This chapter examines the Kenyan Fairtrade flower as a site of value making, one that provides a constructive lens into how moral obligation and ethical accountability are shaped by risk perceptions and become visible through the process of transnational commodity exchange. Specifically, it argues that while Fairtrade labeling responds to the risks of corporate capitalism through consumption practices predicated on extending care and compassion to distant communities, it is also embedded within commodity chains that advance liberal ethics as a mode of “governmentality” over African producers. These ethics are associated with new technologies of information gathering, regulation, and surveillance that simultaneously assuage consumers’ anxieties and channel their sympathy-based humanism into new forms of ethical normativity. Fairtrade's relational ethic, for example, is accompanied by a private regulatory assemblage that authorizes certain knowledge forms, thereby circumscribing the social and economic rights available as well as the form of personhood through which they can be claimed. Thus, although Fairtrade is cast as morally unproblematic, it can also serve as a mechanism through which specific interests are naturalized and circulated through a benevolent vernacular of economic and social rights.

In recent years, with the advent of the phenomenon known as corporate social responsibility (CSR), transnational corporations have moved away from traditional modes of philanthropic largesse, to a focus on ‘community engagement’, partnership, empowerment and ‘social investment’. This chapter draws on ethnographic research, tracing the practise of CSR in a transnational mining company, from its corporate headquarters in London, to its mining operations on South Africa's platinum belt. It explores how the practices of corporate–community partnership – and the goal of ‘self-sustainability’ that the company propounds – project the company as a vehicle of empowerment as it strives to convert ‘beneficiaries’ to the values and virtues of the market with an injunction to ‘help yourself’ to a piece of ‘the market’ and share the opportunities that it offers. However, while the promise of CSR holds out this vision of mutual independence and self-sustainability, I argue that the practise of CSR reinscribes older relations of patronage and clientelism which recreate the coercive bonds of ‘the gift’, inspiring deference and dependence, on the part of the recipient, rather than autonomy and empowerment.

Publication date
Book series
Research in Economic Anthropology
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
Book series ISSN