Special Section: Non-capitalist political ecologies, edited by Brian J. Burke and Boone Shear

Fair Trade Towns USA: growing the market within a diverse economy



Fair trade is both a movement and a market, and the tension between these two domains reflects an ambiguity at the center of fair trade in the United States, resulting from long-standing debates within the contemporary movement. In practice, this ideological division produces a struggle between companies that offer a small number of fair trade products aside a vast number of conventional items, and those that sell only fair trade certified products. However, it also shapes the experience of on-the-ground fair trade advocacy work. This article uses Gibson-Graham's diverse economies framework to explore three arenas in which this is most clearly evidenced. First, some fair trade advocates are wary of Fair Trade USA's (FTUSA) power and strategies. They are aware that multiple fair trade certification frameworks currently exist; however they aren't always sure which ones are most desirable and why. This confusion can be problematic in Fair Trade Towns (FTT) advocacy work which involves convincing community members, institutions and governments to purchase more fair trade products. Second, in light of FTUSA's strategic marketization of fair trade and the entry of large corporate players into the U.S. fair trade market, fair trade advocates increasingly find themselves in the equivocal position of providing free labor and marketing for large corporations. Third, the efforts of some FTT advocates are stymied by the determined localvores in their community who are more focused on minimizing carbon footprints and supporting local farmers than promoting social justice and environmental stewardship in the developing world. These tensions raise important questions about the scalar politics of alternative markets and diverse economies.

Keywords: fair trade, social movements, localism, ethical consumption, Gibson-Graham

How to Cite: Lyon, S. (2014) “Fair Trade Towns USA: growing the market within a diverse economy”, Journal of Political Ecology. 21(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.2458/v21i1.21129