Knowledge for a sustainable world

Development Programme:
Sustainable Trade and Responsible Business
This programme aims to generate knowledge on the impact of trade and private sector initiatives in support of equitable and environmentally sustainable development. It critically assesses the contribution and impact of initiatives such as fair and ethical trade, from the perspective of smallholders and workers in agriculture and a range of related stakeholders. Through critical analysis and action-research, the programme analyses the potential and limitations of such trade and business initiatives, drawing on the extensive experience of NRI staff and partners.

Trade represents a huge opportunity for tackling poverty and generating wealth, and is gaining increasing attention from donors in the form of value chain interventions and 'making markets work for the poor' (MP4). Yet not all of these interventions specifically focus on poor and disadvantaged smallholders who face a range of challenges (structural, organisational, financial, education and information related, market access, land rights, and climate change etc.). Furthermore, they are often not able to capture benefits from trade; they may be excluded from global value chains, or be unable to influence the terms of trade and establish alternative systems. They may face difficulties in participating in local and regional markets for similar reasons.

In export agriculture, millions of workers face poor working conditions and lack basic labour and human rights. Achieving decent work for disadvantaged workers is a huge challenge, particularly with globalization and associated trends such as the casualization of workforces, increasing use of migrant labour and continued lack of enforcement of government regulation. Women workers in particular, often face severe discrimination in gaining access to education, permanent work, and fair working terms and conditions.

Globally, there is a diverse range of initiatives that seek to support smallholders, including those promoted by activists, NGOs and social movements. Fair trade approaches to equitable trade have expanded and diversified over the years, offering different pathways to impact and essentially encapsulating different philosophies of development. As well as the rise of sustainability standards in voluntary private regulation, there is lately increased interest in the potential of Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) type approaches to smallholder and worker organisation. Social economy initiatives include cooperatives, mutual societies, associations and foundations, which operate alongside the profit driven and state sectors in trading. Solidarity economy is more far-reaching, seeking to become the norm in an alternative economic system, but with a pluralist approach.

From another perspective, international businesses are seeking to protect their reputations, to invest in corporate responsibility activities and to mainstream sustainability (in order to secure supply of product, amongst other motivations). The extent of the accountability of such interventions and the effectiveness of responsible business and philanthropic initiatives are important development questions, as is their role in justifying corporate positions and potentially excluding alternative economic models.

There has been a rise in private regulation (e.g. corporate codes of practice, social and environmental standards and labelling schemes, multi-stakeholder initiatives) as well as decent work, emergence of mature systems of industrial relations and collaborative action programmes in global value chains, but there is little understanding of their outcomes and whose interests they are promoting. There are deeper questions requiring research, concerning the systemic nature of exploitation in waged labour and the environment and the most appropriate responses for achieving equitable and sustainable development.


Professor Valerie Nelson
Professor Valerie Nelson
Professor of Sustainable Development, Social Development Specialist
+44 (0)1634 88 3156
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.