Thesis submitted to the Victoria University of Wellington in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (2019)
Advisors: Warwick Murray & John Overton
Abstract. The rise of ethical certifications was greeted with optimism by scholars, activists and development practitioners, who predicted they would help to redistribute power and profit more equitably in South-North commodity trade, which has long been an engine of wealth extraction and underdevelopment in the resource periphery. The explicit attachment of value to the social and territorial origin of agro-food products would allow marginalised producers to resist corporate governance, race-to-the-bottom processes, and commodity fetishism. This would result in the retention of higher value at the production end of the chain, thereby fostering sustainable development in rural areas in the Global South. I investigate the extent to which power and profit is indeed redistributed more equitably in these new ‘ethical value networks’, through a case study of the South African wine industry. Complex apparatus of standards-setting, verification and auditing have formed the basis of strategies for post-apartheid transformation, redistribution and development in the South African wine industry, with progress conceptualised as taking place at the level of business. In this context, ethical certification constitutes a contemporary labour relations paradigm which in key ways reproduces ‘colonial unconscious’ discourses derived from the legacies of slavery, apartheid and farm paternalism. These embedded discursive power formations restrict the transformative potential of ethical certification. For ethical development to occur as a result of ethical value network formation, I argue that workers must gain greater agency and regulatory capability in the governance of these networks. I find also that ethical certification has not been an effective economic upgrading strategy for the South African wine industry. Instead, due to their deployment within oligopolistic networks, ethics have become commodified, and subject to neoliberal governance. Northern retailers have used their existing power to accumulate the value created by alignment with ethical conventions, and to avoid the costs. Ethical certifications compound the severe ‘cost-price squeeze’ faced by wine producers. This case study has broader implications for the theory of ethical value networks: showing that they are relational, geographically contingent, and remain susceptible to asymmetric governance and accumulation patterns.
Excerpt. “Some scholars have employed the French ‘convention theory’ first promulgated by Boltanski and Thevenot (1991), which identifies a series of norms governing economic exchange, to contend that ethical certifications can be defined through their alignment with moral ‘civic’ ‘domestic’ and ‘ecological’ conventions (Barham, 2002; Ponte, 2009; Ponte & Gibbon, 2005). In short, this means they insert place-based social and environmental values expressed in production processes into determinations of product quality. As ethical certifications predominantly appeal to consumers and rely on consumer demand for their market power, they may also be defined in relation to a labelling aspect, that signals ethical quality to consumers through terms like ‘fair’, ‘ethical’, and ‘eco’. For the purposes of this thesis, an ethical certification conforms to the following criteria: It is adopted voluntarily to certify that a product incorporates certain normative social or environmental qualities in its production process according to a set of pre-determined standards, and it communicates these qualities to consumers through the use of product labels.”(p. 5-6)