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Who defines “local”? Resistance to harmonizing standards in ethical markets

  • Sara Jane McCaffrey and Nancy Kurland (a1)

Standards for “ethical” goods provide activists and mission-driven producers with opportunities to clarify decisions for so-called “ethical consumers” and spur growth in these new markets. But certification schemes also raise monitoring challenges, and may confuse consumers and create opportunities for cooptation by large corporate competitors. In this interview-based study, we examined the localism movement to understand why social movement leaders might resist harmonization of standards. We find that leaders define “local” in at least five ways, and argue that they resist harmonization of local for pragmatic, philosophical, and strategic reasons. We conclude that tolerance for multiple standards could be beneficial for core activists in market-oriented social movements. If and when these groups turn more systematically to the political system, maintaining loose and multiple standards may impede policy success. The “buy local” case suggests, however, that as long as the market remains activists’ primary mechanism for social change, decentralized governance and multiple standards in ethical markets allow activists to maintain a powerful voice in defining ethical products and business practices.

Corresponding author
* Patricia E. Harris Center for Business, Government, and Public Policy, Franklin & Marshall College, Room 114, PO Box 3003, Lancaster, PA 17604–3003, USA, e-mail:
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