- The Cultural and Political Intersection of Fair Trade and Justice: Managing a Global Industry by Tamara L. Stenn
Readers who expect an elaborate critical discourse on any of the keywords in this title, The Cultural and Political Intersection of Fair Trade and Justice: Managing a Global Industry, will ultimately be disappointed. Indeed, in this book, the word discourse makes not a single appearance, at least not in the Foucauldian sense. But, then again, the book is not written for such an audience. Rather, authored by a 15-year fair trade activist and founder of a fair trade retailer of Bolivian knit alpaca sweaters, it is written for students, businesspeople, and development practitioners with the goal of giving an inside perspective on the many challenges and hopes of fair trade, while offering concrete recommendations along the way. Stenn frames her project as an interdisciplinary attempt to assess fair trade by combining the disciplines of management, economics, and anthropology and measuring its impact on the ground through the lenses of ethnicity, gender, politics, and culture. As the title suggests, its overarching goal is to bring to the fore the forgotten voices of fair trade producers, whose ideas about justice and fairness, it turns out, are quite unlike our own.
The book is divided into four sections, for a total of 12 short chapters, each of which ends with a section of supplementary materials or exercises for teaching students about fair trade and justice. In the first section, Stenn provides a lengthy overview of the four “pillars” of fair trade: institutions, consumers, producers, and government. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the experience of the author, the introductory and first chapter on institutions are the strongest. Stenn presents a thorough overview of fair trade organizations, highlighting their different principles and situating those principles within the specific narratives of their emergence—including the [End Page 209] “coming to consciousness” narratives of fabled fair trade pioneers, Francisco VanderHoff Boersma (founder of Max Havelaar) and Edna Ruth Byler (Ten Thousand Villages). Stenn also situates fair trade within the broader context of non-industry fair trading strategies, like direct trade, ethical trade, local trade, and the solidarity economy, which each have their own social and cultural logic. Unfortunately, the following chapters are much weaker. The chapter on consumers is largely a market report about fair trade, framed theoretically by a variation on rational choice theory. The chapter on government, which overdraws the difference between “free” and “fair,” is missing an important discussion on governance, or forms of social accountability that derive not from the state but from a much wider range of social actors like consumers, NGOs, and other organizations and networks. The chapter on producers, likewise, attempts to inventory the now well-rehearsed benefits that fair trade delivers to producers, like increased prices and access to markets, education, and long-term economic security. What ties this section together is a theoretical framework set out in the introduction and applied uniformly throughout the remainder of the text: Amartya Sen’s (2009) discussion of “the idea of justice.” According to Sen, as Stenn points out, Western philosophical traditions elide the important distinction between multiple forms of justice, as is evident in Indian philosophy. The first is niti, which conveys an institutional and rule-centered approach, such as in the Rawlsian juridical tradition. The second is nyaya, which instead attempts to capture the “spirit” of a much more inclusive justice, realized through such things as right intention, plural grounding, and public reasoning. What is startling about Stenn’s “application” of Sen’s framework is that it is never questioned, critically examined, or compared with other theoretical frameworks for what they might hide or bring to light. Sen’s framework is merely imposed on the text, which allows Stenn to make unwarranted claims like, “As the industry grows and reshapes itself through changes in the niti guidelines, the nyaya mission of Fair Trade stays clear, promoting greater equity and better trade conditions for marginalized people worldwide” (26).
The second and third sections of the...