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Keeping trade fair: governance challenges in the fair trade coffee initiative

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Fair trade has gained attention as an innovative market-based mechanism for addressing social and environmental problems exacerbated by conventional global markets. Yet such initiatives are also regulatory mechanisms that establish voluntary alternative arrangements for governing production, commercialization and consumption of global commodities. Based on a recent study of fair trade coffee experiences in Latin America, this paper explores the changes that fair trade represents in governance of the coffee commodity chain. It argues that fair trade coffee governance is shaped both by formal organizational arrangements for coordination and control and, less formally, by the social and political relations embedded in fair trade’s commodity chain. Fair trade’s alternative governance arrangements represent one of the initiative’s major accomplishments but also pose some of its most significant challenges for the future.