In this chapter we bring a historical and conceptual perspective to the evolution of product certification through a critical look at the growing ‘certified-industrial complex’ behind the Fairtrade label (see Gereffi et al. 2001). First, we theorize the political economy of certification within the context of widespread efforts to clean up global supply chains in response to concerns about social, economic and environmental injustice and efforts to foster corporate social responsibility. Second, we briefly describe the rise of fair trade certification, embed it in the broader harmonizing trend of quality certifications and identify important questions that remain to be answered regarding the role of certification in fair trade. Our analysis draws upon the experience of coffee, which due to the relatively lengthy history as a fairly traded commodity provides an excellent standpoint from which to view how commodity chain organization and social practice have been altered by fair trade’s shift from a trust-based ‘solidarity’ network to a standards-based commodity chain subject to ISO (International Organization for Standardization) certification norms. A key goal will be to signal the paradoxes embedded in the certification process, which, when considered within the broader arena of fair-trade-related activities, may be found to exert its own disciplining effects. In particular, we will discuss the somewhat contradictory process through which certification as a practice under certain conditions enhances fair trade outcomes and yet in others contributes to a ‘disembedding’ of the solidarity relations that once gave fair trade its unique stamp (Wilson 2013).
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