Fairness and ethicality in their place: The regional dynamics of fair trade and ethical sourcing agendas in the plantation districts of South India

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In this paper we argue for a ‘horizontal’ approach to the analysis of fair and ethical trade, one which asks questions about the wider eddies they create within regional production contexts. This approach runs counter to much of the existing literature on the topic, which typically examines initiatives ‘vertically’, in terms of how they affect the lives of participating producers and communities. Applying this method to critique fair and ethical trade in the tea and coffee plantation districts of South India, we find that, at present, initiatives fail to intersect with the most pressing problems of poverty and development within this regional production system. Somewhat ironically, these schemes seem to be having their greatest positive effects within industry segments that are not the most needful of support, and tend to have very limited engagement with those industry participants in direst straits (notably, smallholders and workers on abandoned estates). Consideration of these issues highlights how the uneven penetration of fair and ethical trade is contributing to transformations in the institutional formations and systems of governance. Producers oriented to servicing affluent Western markets are increasingly enmeshed within fair and ethical trade agendas and interact with dense ensembles of suprastate and civil society regulation (involving international nongovernmental organisations and audit firms). Yet, more marginalised producers remain regulated by traditional institutional mechanisms embedded within the nation-state (government departments, trade unions, etc). These assessments point to the limitations and challenges facing fair and ethical trade as a strategic intervention for addressing the social, economic, and environmental injustices of global agriculture.

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