THE CONTRADICTIONS OF CLEAN: SUPERMARKET ETHICAL TRADE AND AFRICAN HORTICULTURE
April 10, 2007 |
by Susanne Freidberg. IIED GATEKEEPER SERIES NO.109, 2003.
Supermarkets in Great Britain joined the country's Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) in the late 1990s to demonstrate their commitment to socially responsible sourcing.
They have been particularly concerned to enforce ethical as well as food safety standards in their African fresh fruit and vegetable supply regions. Although this appears to signal an important shift towards more transparent supply chain management practices, this paper argues that the ‘fetishism' of ethical standards obscures extraordinarily uneven supply chain power relations. Efforts to impose such standards on African horticultural exporters thus respond more to the particular anxieties of corporate retail management than to the concerns of the workers in the horticultural export industry themselves.
The supermarkets' ethical trade campaign also faces a fundamental and potentially unsustainable contradiction, as can be seen in Zambia. There, export horticulture became one of the few dynamic sectors of the national economy in the mid-1990s. The export companies and outgrowers involved in this sector have been required to shoulder the costs of compliance with the supermarkets' standards, which include the costs of new facilities (child care, clinics, chemical storage), new services, and dditional personnel and equipment. The prices they receive for their produce, however, have remained flat. The profit margins that once made export horticulture attractive have thus shrunk, and some outgrowers have abandoned the sector altogether, shedding many jobs in the process.
The export companies have sought to resolve the cost-price squeeze by developing higher and higher value-added product lines, such as pre-packed organic baby vegetables. It is unclear, however, whether this measure will provide more than a temporary fix, given the supermarkets' ongoing price competition. One company has also begun out-sourcing production to cooperatives of black smallholders, on the assumption that they will accept lower prices than the white commercial outgrowers. Although Zambia's smallholders could conceivably benefit from participation in export horticulture, the costs of compliance with supermarket standards may, again, exclude all but the wealthiest among them.
If supermarkets are truly concerned about ethical sourcing, they will need to bear more of its costs. They also need to listen to more workers in the industries most affected by their standards. Supermarkets are unlikely to initiate such reforms by themselves, however. Non-governmental organisations and the popular media should therefore continue to investigate and highlight the ambiguous ethics of supermarket sourcing policies. The supermarkets' intense concerns about public image may yet provide powerful leverage.
Full paper available for download at http://www.iied.org/NR/agbioliv/gatekeepers/documents/GK109.pdf