Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law

School of Politics and International Studies

Research Student: Dr Hannah McDowall

Shifting patterns of value chain governance in fair trade handicrafts home accessories and fashion chains and the position of African women producers

Photo of Dr Hannah McDowall

Since Fairtrade labelled commodities such as coffee, tea, chocolate and cotton have been present in mainstream markets, they have seen exceptional market growth. However, markets in the un-labelled Fair Trade sectors, usually lumped together as 'handicrafts', have experienced market stagnation and even decline. As a result, in recent years handicraft-producing organisations have looked to mainstream markets for the market growth that commodities have enjoyed. And, for producer organisations which can producer the right kinds of products, at the right price, completed in sufficient quantities and by specified deadlines, there is very strong mainstream interest.  However, mainstream buyers are well known for the controlling nature with which they govern their supply chains, and how their price-driven approach will affect the socially-driven approach which Fair Trade producer organisations adopt is yet to be seen.

Fair Trade enterprises are committed to economic and social empowerment of poor and marginalised producers, of whom, women are singled out as especially deserving of improved earning opportunities and capacity building. Women are concentrated within these sectors in any case, and labour rights discourses extensively document the exploitation of women supplying mainstream global value chains resulting from price-driven pressure exerted by powerful mainstream buyers. As mainstream retails scramble to cash in on ethical consumption, these Fair Trade producer organisations are having to operate within mainstream-buyer norms, and mainstream buyers are having to consider Fair Trade supplier norms. This research explores the social impact of Fair Trade handicraft businesses on producers within the context of the vertical chain relationships they are part of in order explore which chain scenarios deliver the best 'Fair Trade' opportunity for producers (especially women).

Using qualitative research methods, this research has mapped the relationships between actors in ten Fair Trade handicraft value chains, six in South Africa and four in Kenya. The economic and social benefits of the working opportunities offered to producers have also been mapped. Initial analysis of the findings suggests that there is considerable variation in the quality of the working opportunities available, but this variation is not due to differences in Fair Trade values or ideals, but rather the capability of a producer organisation to negotiate terms of trade that suit them and find alternative buyers if these terms are rejected.

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