No alternative: Participation, inequality, and the meanings of fair trade in Nicaragua
Fisher, Joshua B., 1981-
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Fisher, Joshua B., 1981-
This dissertation research takes an ethnographic perspective on competing notions of "fairness" in the first vertically-integrated garment production chain in the world that is certified as fair trade. In sharp contrast to the straightforward images of social justice that are so common on the consumer end of fair trade, the dissertation demonstrates that relations of fair trade production, distribution, and consumption are complicated by ideological disjunctures, by different experiences of work and labor, by unequal access to capital and political opportunity, by asymmetrical power, and ultimately by disparate concepts of economic justice. Organized as a commodity chain analysis, this dissertation is based on sixteen months of multi-sited, ethnographic research in Nicaragua, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), with four separate fair trade organizations: a faith-based NGO from North Carolina called the Center for Sustainable Development, a well-known Michigan-based fair trade retailer called Clean Clothes Organics, and two Nicaraguan producer organizations, including a women's industrial sewing cooperative (The Fair Trade Zone, which is the first worker-owned organization in the world to gain free trade zone customs certification), and an industrial cotton spinning plant called Genesis. The research shows that, from the standpoint of production and distribution, conflicts frequently emerge over the terms, conditions, and meanings of labor, business contracts, extra-contractual relations, participation in decision-making, and the definition of roles. Producers, moreover, often have no alternative but to accept the terms of more powerful groups under duress of poverty. Theoretically speaking, this dissertation contributes to an understanding of alternative economic formations, including fair trade and cooperatives. In this vein, I argue that the idea of fair trade as an "alternative" to conventional trade is a problematic rhetorical move that tends to obscure the fact that all aspects of trade--production, distribution, and consumption--are not only inherently political, they are also riven with the complications of mediating between disparate cultural meanings, social positionalities, and political, economic, and social inequality. I recommend revisioning the relationship between the economy, the state, and various spheres of society in light of the insights of substantivist economics, feminist political economy, and ethnography.