Keahey, Jennifer and Douglas L. Murray. 2017. “The Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability.”
Sociology of Development 3(2): 143-162.
JENNIFER KEAHEY AND DOUGLAS L. MURRAY
Arizona State University, Email: Jennifer.Keahey@asu.edu
The Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability
ABSTRACT Sustainability standards and certifications increasingly represent multi-billion
dollar brands that partner with corporate firms. We employ the case of South Africa’s Rooibos
tea industry to analyze the impacts of this shift. Examining five sustainability initiatives, our
research focuses on small-scale farmers and the power dynamics shaping their involvement. The
Rooibos initiatives engaged multiple approaches, but none realized sustainable outcomes. Third-
party and corporate efforts exposed producers to risk and reified dependency, industry actions
did not achieve intended goals, and a shared leadership project failed to address material barriers
to participation. Yet, examples of good practice offer insight into the types of policies needed to
improve outcomes. These include shifting from a hierarchical to a relational orientation by
reducing certification costs, extending support services, and ensuring inclusivity in planning and
governance. We conclude by arguing that markets are a perilous tool for development.
Sustainable trade systems nevertheless illustrate the promise of market-based sustainability as
these are providing marginal groups with a platform to demand more equitable arrangements.
Key words —global value chains (GVCs); sustainable development; fair trade; corporate social
responsibility (CSR); South Africa
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 1
World markets are experiencing a “certification revolution” due to consumer demand for goods
that meet social and environmental standards (Conroy 2007). Traditionally located at the margins
of markets, sustainable trade systems increasingly operate in partnership with major corporations
(Davenport and Low 2013). These offer a counterpoint to the destructive practices found in
global value chains, and range from third-party certifications such as Fairtrade and organics to
internally monitored corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. In addition to impacting
global markets, sustainable trade systems have begun to influence commerce in the Global
South, where actors are opening domestic markets to goods that promote both local and global
sustainability agendas (Hughes, McEwan and Bek 2015). While these shifts offer potential to
marginal producers who are seeking buyers committed to social responsibility, managing
certifications requires considerable resources and skills (Keahey 2016). There is a need to study
power dynamics as well as to determine the efficacy of practices.
In post-apartheid South Africa, the Rooibos tea industry is struggling to address stark racial
disparities deriving from a history of exploitation and exclusion (Coombe, Ives and Huizenga
2014). We employ the case of Rooibos to examine the impact of market-based approaches to
sustainability on small-scale coloured1 producers. Our study analyzes their experiences with five
initiatives that sought to benefit from or improve access to socially and environmentally
responsible markets. These include: (1) a Fairtrade packaging scheme; (2) a corporate
community tea campaign; (3) organic Rooibos seedling research; (4) a biodiversity labeling
initiative; and (5) a shared leadership program. Addressing the question of sustainability in
different ways, these efforts employed a variety of development strategies. Yet, none realized
sustainable outcomes, demonstrating the extent of challenges as well as the need to develop more
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 2
This article informs development scholarship in three key ways. First, we reveal the breadth
of market-based approaches to sustainability and examine how these are informing production in
the Global South. Whereas previous studies have focused on specific certifications and practices,
our work captures common challenges and broader potentials. Second, we show how complex
barriers reinforce disparities, hindering local efforts to meet increasingly stringent standards.
With a focus on vertical power, global value chain (GVC) studies have ignored horizontal
cleavages (Phillips 2014). The failure to account for historical, social, and environmental
influences has stymied policymaking (Bolwig et al. 2010). To address this gap, we use a network
approach to investigate “the complex ideological and material relations enacted in commodity
production and exchange” (Raynolds 2009:1085). Third, we consider good practices, providing
more comprehensive insight into the types of policies needed to improve outcomes.
After problematizing sustainability, power, and participation in relation to GVCs, we discuss
the impacts of colonialism and apartheid on South African agriculture. Next, we describe our
research methods and present case study findings. The remainder of the article analyzes Rooibos
challenges and prospects, first by distinguishing between structural and relational barriers then
by sharing promising strategies for improvement. As we discuss, sustainable trade systems offer
potential to small-scale Rooibos farmers, but there is a critical gap between intention and
practice. This gap is fueling uncertainty about the means and ends of market-based sustainability.
In our view, markets are unlikely to realize environmentally sustainable and socially just
outcomes without fundamentally transforming the terms of engagement. This includes moving
from a vertical to a relational power orientation by reducing certification costs, extending support
services, and ensuring inclusivity in planning and governance.
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 3
POWER AND PARTICIPATION IN SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT
The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED 1987:43) has defined
sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the
ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In addition to focusing on environmental
factors, this report recognized the importance of social issues related to poverty and justice (Sen
2013). In recent years, business interests have promoted a three-pillar people-planet-profit model
of sustainability (Fisk 2010). It is argued that embracing socially and environmentally
responsible practices enables businesses to develop smarter innovations, assume more strategic
market positions, and achieve higher levels of growth. Increasingly prevalent in neoliberal
markets, this orientation supports multiple concerns but elevates the economic pillar by
emphasizing the notion of commercial sustainability. Yet, more specific ideas about
sustainability remain spatially and temporally complex (Mog 2004). For example, the South
African state has embraced the three-pillar model, but it also defines sustainability within the
context of post-apartheid politics. As such, it calls for collaborations that strengthen democratic
processes by raising the voices of marginal groups (DEAT 2008).
The notion of multi-stakeholder participation has become prevalent in sustainability circles.
In particular, sustainable agriculture has developed methods that connect experts with farmers to
examine uncertainties and solve complex challenges (Pretty 1995). Within the broader discourse,
scholars argue that “sustainable development should be based on local-level solutions derived
from community initiatives” rather than from top-down approaches that emphasize expert
control (Leach, Mearns and Scoones 1999:225). Indeed, participatory practices provide a means
for transcending ideological and material differences (Zaccai 2012). Yet, such initiatives are
difficult to implement and risk being coopted by elite interests when less-advantaged groups
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 4
operate at the margins of planning and governance (Lund and Saito-Jensen 2013). Rural
stakeholders are particularly vulnerable to conflicts and the subordination of local knowledge to
elite worldviews (Johansen and Chandler 2015). These issues are intensified in South Africa,
where black and coloured people experience acute poverty (Lehohla 2014), and where nearly
three quarters of the nation’s poor reside in rural areas (Neves and Du Toit 2013).
MARKET-BASED APPROACHES TO SUSTAINABILITY
GVC scholars examine the multinational production and trade processes that give rise to global
goods (Gereffi, Humphrey and Sturgeon 2005). In the neoliberal era, value chains are driven by
buyer interests, with large corporations overseeing the activities of their suppliers via corporate
standards related to product quality and increasingly to social and environmental issues that are
considered central to their brand identity (Hughes, McEwan and Bek 2013). African producers
have responded to these transformations by moving into higher-level production processes or by
acquiring certifications that enable their entry into specialized markets (Gibbon and Ponte 2005).
While these forms of upgrading provide producers with opportunities to access value-added
markets, such moves involve commercial risk (Ponte and Ewert 2009).
Conceptually distinct from state and market, civil society represents a “third sector of
development” (Viterna, Clough and Clarke 2015:173). Within global markets, certifications
generally are governed by third-party organizations that employ a voluntary approach to
production and trade regulation. Systems such as Fairtrade and organics challenge conventional
practices by redefining product quality in relation to social and environmental value (Ponte
2016). Fairtrade buyers meet minimum pricing standards for certified purchases, pay social
premiums to producer organizations, and ideally develop long-term trading relations, In return,
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 5
certified producers meet stringent production standards and regularly submit to third-party audits
(Raynolds and Greenfield 2015). Producers often seek dual Fairtrade and organic certification,
particularly in Africa where Fairtrade “is closely linked to organic initiatives in seeking to halt
environmental degradation” (Raynolds and Keahey 2008). There are cases where Fairtrade
partnerships have led to transformative industry arrangements (Doherty and Tranchell 2007).
Yet, there also is evidence that the institutionalization of standards has disproportionately served
market interests (Jaffee and Howard 2010).
In addition to sustainability certifications, market-based approaches include corporate social
responsibility (CSR). Employing the language of civil regulation, these efforts are privately
monitored and provide business interests with a way to access sustainability markets without
submitting to third-sector oversight (Matten and Moon 2008). Proponents of CSR note the
potential of markets to achieve a range of sustainability objectives; and in South Africa, the
notion of corporate citizenship is tied to post-apartheid policies that stipulate sustainability
reporting and socially responsible investments (Visser 2005). Yet, CSR efforts have been riddled
with contradictions and it is unclear whether “the curative power of compassionate capitalism”
can “stymie corporate greed” in African industries where highly inequitable practices and
relations remain intact (Blowfield and Dolan 2008:2).
Although GVC scholars have explored questions pertaining to sustainability and power,
knowledge remains limited. First, studies either ignore the influence of certifications on industry
arrangements or treat sustainability “as a modular ‘add-on’ to chain organization” (Bush et al.
2015:16). This narrow focus prevents scholars from theorizing governance beyond the limited
scope of technical management. Second, studies tend to maintain a top-down view of power that
fails to capture local dimensions, such as those based on race relations (Phillips 2014). In
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 6
contrast, the commodity network approach developed by Raynolds (2002, 2009) facilitates a
more nuanced analysis of the power dynamics occurring within certified commodities. As
sustainable trade systems employ different regulatory protocols and compete for access to
producers and markets (Nelson and Tallontire 2014), this relational orientation may be used to
clarify how market-based approaches to sustainability are impacting industries as a whole.
THE INEQUITABLE TERRAIN OF SOUTH AFRICAN AGRICULTURE
Colonial regimes appropriated land throughout sub-Saharan Africa for commercial production.
However, this process was highly uneven, and both small-scale and subsistence farming remain
prevalent in many areas of the continent. The primary exception is South Africa, where the estate
system shares several broad similarities with the development of the hacienda system in Latin
America and other colonial regimes (Lastarria-Cornhiel, Melmed-Sanjak and Phillips 1999).
During South Africa’s colonial era, white settlers appropriated land, forcing black and coloured
inhabitants into servitude. The estate model that emerged at this time became entrenched in the
twentieth century when the apartheid state promoted industrial development through large-scale
commercial production. In post-apartheid South Africa, whites have continued to own most of
the nation’s commercial farmland (Chikulo 2015). Moreover, estate production has become
increasingly concentrated. Not only do white-owned estates produce nearly all the agricultural
goods destined for markets, just five percent of these capture over 60 percent of South Africa’s
aggregate net farm income (Aliber and Cousins 2013).
Given its failure to achieve significant land reforms, the post-apartheid state has prioritized
improving labor conditions on estates. Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE)
codes have been instituted to facilitate the entry of people of color into managerial and
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 7
ownership positions in industry and trade (DTI 2009). These codes are mandated by law but as
the state lacks enforcement capacity. Fairtrade certifiers have sought to fill this gap by working
with estates to address farmworker issues. In addition to meeting global standards, certified
estates in South Africa must demonstrate progress in terms of meeting national B-BBEE
requirements as part of the Fairtrade auditing process (Kruger and Du Toit 2007).
Despite the dominance of white-owned estates, black and coloured producers have begun to
enter commercial markets, typically as small-scale farmers. The post-apartheid state has
designated these farmers as “emerging” in recognition of their historical exclusion from land and
markets (Cousins 2010). Although a few emerging farmers operate commercial estates, most of
this population resides on small plots of land in former ethnic homelands where food is grown
for subsistence as well as for sale (Aliber and Cousins 2013). The concerns of these small-scale
farmers are not well understood; thus our work focused on this population. The following section
briefly contextualizes the terrain of Rooibos production and presents our research methods.
RESEARCH ARENA AND METHODS
A member of the Cape fynbos floral kingdom, Rooibos is a uniquely South African product that
originates in the Cederberg Mountains of southwestern South Africa (Binns et al. 2007). As an
herbal tea, Rooibos joins an array of Southern products that have received the legal distinction of
terroir (Besky 2013, Biénabe and Marie-Vivien 2015). Similarly to Darjeeling tea in India,
perceptions of value in Rooibos are tied to its colonial legacy and postcolonial narratives of
sustainability that promote notions of fairness as well as the idealized imagery of cultural
production within pristine nature (Besky 2014). While white-owned estates typically are located
along the western slope of the Cederberg where wide valleys and greater rainfall support
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 8
production, coloured farmers tend to farm small plots in the arid and rugged interior. This
racialized distribution derives from the trajectory of colonial settlement that gave rise to coloured
rural areas as well as from apartheid-era dislocations that led to a near total dispossession of
arable land (May and Lahiff 2007). There are concerns that the legal distinction of terroir may
exacerbate racial disparities “by conferring benefits primarily upon white farm owners who
already control the land and means of production” (Coombe, Ives and Huizenga 2014:225).
The lead author conducted fieldwork in South Africa throughout 2010, subsequent to the
launch of numerous sustainability initiatives in Rooibos and during a period of certification
difficulties. In total, 95 interviews were completed with small-scale farmer leaders and farmers
as well as with local elders and professional experts. The latter group included: (1) producer
organizations; (2) processors, distributors, and packagers; (3) an umbrella industry network; (4)
Fairtrade organizations; (5) B-BBEE operatives; and (6) environmental groups. The lead author
also was embedded with a shared leadership program that involved a network of small-scale
farmer leaders representing several coloured communities. Participant observation of training
workshops and networking activities provided critical insight into their concerns, and
preliminary findings were shared with project stakeholders. The following section presents our
findings. After covering the multifaceted influences shaping Rooibos engagement, we discuss
the five sustainability initiatives occurring in the industry at time of research.
SOUTH AFRICA’S EMERGING ROOIBOS INDUSTRY
Emphasizing their presence at the geographic point of origin for Rooibos, small-scale farmers
discussed the importance of Rooibos to coloured heritage. According to oral histories told by
local elders, coloured people originally traveled into the Cederberg as the slaves of Afrikaner
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 9
trekkers. When these settlers left in search of more arable lands, a number of coloured people
remained in the remote mountains. Establishing homesteads in the early nineteenth century, this
population intermingled with indigenous Khoe-San peoples who taught them how to recognize
the Rooibos bush, harvest its leaves, and ferment the tea. As coloured communities became
established in the region, families commonly used wild Rooibos for household consumption and
as a traditional medicine for a variety of ailments, including indigestion and influenza.
Local informants also discussed the central role that coloured farmers played in terms of
developing varieties suitable for commercial cultivation during the early twentieth century.
While their input helped to launch the Rooibos industry, the collaboration between white and
coloured interests ended subsequent to the mid-century inception of apartheid when a state
control board assumed control over the industry and barred coloured producers from
participation. During the decades of apartheid, some local elders stated that coloured farmers
continued to cultivate Rooibos in small quantities for household consumption and informal sale.
In the early 1990s, the incoming post-apartheid government converted the control board into a
public firm and removed racial regulations. While white farmers sought to decentralize the
industry by instituting their own processing firms, coloured farmers instituted two producer
organizations in different areas of the Cederberg. After securing organic certification in the late
1990s, these two groups began to informally access Fairtrade buyers in the early 2000s.
Despite these changes, the Rooibos industry has remained heavily centralized and white-
owned estates have continued to maintain their dominant position in markets. Not only must all
Rooibos flow through a few large processors with pasteurization capacity, racial disparities in
land tenure have precluded coloured farmers from deepening their presence in markets. A recent
survey found that 93 percent of Rooibos derived from white-owned estates, with the largest
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 10
averaging 600 tons per year. In contrast, nearly all coloured farmers rented small plots of land in
marginal areas (Kruger and Associates 2010). Although this industry study defined farmers who
produce less than 10 tons of Rooibos per year as small-scale, nearly 60 percent of those involved
in our research were cultivating less than two tons per year, with only nine percent growing more
than seven tons.
In addition to critical land shortages, the sensitivity of Rooibos bushes to rainfall
differentially impacts small-scale farmers who predominantly reside in the arid interior. In
contrast to estate farmers, this group is more vulnerable to Cederberg droughts and lacks the
financial reserves to stockpile tea produced during wet years for sale in dry years, when pricing
rises. While these barriers have precluded small-scale farmers from expanding commercial
production, they have established a reputation for producing high-quality tea. According to
industry informants, tea produced in the arid interior has a more intense flavor due to the slower
rate of growth. Indeed, Rooibos continues to grow wild in lands where coloured farmers operate,
and communities have begun to harvest small quantities of wild tea to meet niche demand.
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 11
South African Ministry of Agriculture and Department of Trade and Industry
Sou th African Rooi b os
Counc i l
Hire d-labor estates that
process and distribute
Hire d-labor estates Smal l fa rmer
Large processors and
Sou th Africa n pac ker
South African retailers
In terna t io nal brok ers
Internat ional re tailers
The Rooibos Value Chain
Source: Adapted from Bramley, Biénabe, and Kirsten (2009)
Figure 1 displays a map of the Rooibos value chain. The traditional chain to the left has
continued to capture most sales, but industry diversification nonetheless is evident in the rise of
estates with processing and distribution capacity as well as in the entry of small farmer
organizations into markets. Organic tea flows through multiple channels to reach domestic and
international retailers. According to industry informants, organic certification is increasingly
viewed as a requisite for market entry and no longer guarantees premium pricing. In contrast,
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 12
Fairtrade tea provides producers with access to minimum pricing guarantees and social
premiums for development. However, unlike in other Fairtrade commodities such as coffee,
Rooibos standards have been instituted for estates as well as for small-scale farmers. Thus, in the
Fairtrade context, certified estates tend to sell tea through processors that maintain multiple
sustainability certifications while small farmer organizations sell directly to international
Fairtrade buyers who operate as small exporters.
In the following sub-sections, we discuss five initiatives that sought to advance sustainability
objectives within the Rooibos industry in the late 2000s. These included: (1) a Fairtrade
packaging scheme designed to add value to the tea produced by two small farmer cooperatives;
(2) a CSR project implemented with coloured farmers in a non-traditional Rooibos growing area;
(3) a research initiative to develop organic Rooibos seedlings; (4) a biodiversity campaign that
planned to streamline certification management via the formation of an industry label; and (5) a
training program that introduced a network of small-scale farmer leaders to the industry.
Drawing largely from interviews with a range of informants, we describe the power dynamics
shaping engagement and outcomes. The level of producer involvement varied widely; yet, even
when farmers were engaged, we found that several barriers reinforced power imbalances.
The Fairtrade Initiative
The Fair Packers scheme initially was hailed as an innovative product upgrading effort that
would enable small-scale farmers to directly export packaged tea to certified markets.
Participants comprised the members of two cooperatives that were supplying Fairtrade markets
with organic tea in the early 2000s, well before Fairtrade International instituted formal standards
for Rooibos tea. In 2005, these groups entered into an agreement with a white contract packager
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 13
to institute Fair Packers under a one-third ownership scheme. The initiative followed a business
rather than development model with the participating groups receiving neither financial nor
technical support. When Fair Packers was instituted, Rooibos markets were entering into a glut
due to record harvests. Difficulties grew when Fairtrade International formalized its Rooibos
standards in 2008, permitting estates to compete with small-scale farmers in Fairtrade exchanges.
According to an industry informant, this move led to an imbalance in Fairtrade supply and
demand as estates offered large quantities of certified tea. These events proved disastrous for the
larger cooperative which had gone into considerable debt to meet its share of the start-up costs.
In 2009 the Fair Packers arrangement collapsed. With assistance from an environmental
organization that was involved in Fairtrade development, the smaller of the two cooperatives
extracted itself from the scheme and maintained its ties to Fairtrade buyers. In contrast, the larger
group received less consistent support and faced grave challenges. This cooperative was located
in a remote region of the Cederberg where members resided at distance from one another across
rugged terrain. Moreover, cooperative staff lacked the capacity required to manage expanded
operations. Not only was initial Fairtrade certification handled by an external expert,
membership more than doubled between 2001 and 2005 in anticipation of Fairtrade certification.
While staff members possessed greater knowledge of organic standards, these had become
increasingly complex to manage exacerbating shortcomings in technical capacity.
Both the large cooperative and the Fair Packers firm underwent decertification in late 2009.
Buying out small farmer shares, the white packager reconstituted the firm without certifications
and accessed a different set of buyers. Meanwhile, the large cooperative continued to flounder.
Farming families struggled to survive without Rooibos income as the cooperative’s unsold tea
languished in the shed of a large processing firm. One Fairtrade respondent ironically referred to
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 14
this tea as “toxic” when discussing the chaos surrounding decertification. In an effort to garner
income, some members left the troubled cooperative and formed a new producer organization in
2010. This smaller group quickly moved to secure Fairtrade and organic certifications and slowly
rebuilt local ties to Fairtrade buyers who wished to support the community. Meanwhile, the
larger cooperative entered into legal disputes, and ultimately was liquidated in early 2011.
The Community Tea Initiative
In 2006, a processing firm began working with a group of predominantly small-scale coloured
farmers located in the southern reaches of the fynbos floral kingdom. While the firm framed its
engagement in terms of community development and more broadly expressed its commitment to
social sustainability, initiative emphasis was on commercial sustainability as the primary goal
was to develop an alternate production region that would ensure a steady supply of tea during
Cederberg droughts. Having secured a sustainable development grant from a multinational
foundation, the firm provided the members of a producer organization with initial agricultural
training, enabling them to begin Rooibos testing. The farmers found that Rooibos grew robustly
in the wetter southern climate, although bushes were short lived and fields required transplanting
at three times the traditional rate. By 2010 the farmers involved in this project were selling their
entire Rooibos crop to the firm which processed and sold it to a luxury supermarket chain. In
turn, this retailer marketed its commitment to social responsibility by selling the tea for minimal
profit in its South African stores.
The members of this producer organization were less impoverished than the Cederberg
population. Not only did most own rather than rent their land due to recent land reforms, a
number of farmers employed laborers. While most people in this area were small farmers, a few
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 15
were growing large quantities of Rooibos along with other herbal products. For example, one
small estate was producing 30 tons of Rooibos per year in addition to a variety of other herbal
goods. Yet, even these farmers were forced to rely upon other sources of income to maintain
their operations, and many wished to add value to their Rooibos tea via organic certification. In
contrast, interest in Fairtrade was limited. Some felt that Fairtrade did not adequately meet the
needs of an emerging farmer population as it maintained separate standards for small farmers and
hired-labor estates. While those with larger farms were encouraged to certify under the hired-
labor designation, these had significantly fewer resources than white-owned estates and felt that
such a move would not provide them with the support needed to grow their farms.
This CSR initiative helped a group of coloured farmers enter into a new commodity by
capitalizing on growing national demand for ethically produced goods. In addition to providing
producers with initial Rooibos training, the processor covered their transportation and processing
fees and promised to help the group locate funding to build a facility for first-stage processing.
However, these services represented a temporary form of assistance, and many farmers were
concerned about the long-term viability of continuing Rooibos production. Moreover, the
farmers remained entirely dependent upon the processing firm for market access. Not only was
the group’s potential for sales limited by its distance from the Cederberg, farmers lacked
knowledge in which to base business decisions and expressed an urgent need for market training.
The Organic Seedling Initiative
As the umbrella networking body for the Rooibos tea industry, the South African Rooibos
Council began funding organic seedling research in the 2000s to meet a critical barrier to organic
production. With Rooibos bushes lasting no more than 10 years in their traditional growing zone,
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 16
seedlings must be transplanted on a regular basis. Due to a lack of organic varieties, farmers have
been transplanting conventional seedlings into their organic fields, and while certifiers have
temporarily allowed this practice, industry respondents stated that the institutionalization of
standards has made the seedling issue increasingly salient. To address this concern, the Rooibos
Council hired a qualified researcher who brought international scientists into the project. By
2010, this group had failed to develop viable organic seedlings and the Council noted that it
lacked the resources to continue funding such an expensive initiative.
Meanwhile, both estates and small-scale Rooibos farmers were frustrated with the expert-
driven nature of the project and had begun to conduct their own separate tests.2 Although small-
scale farmers possessed significantly fewer resources, this group felt they had critical knowledge
to contribute as they resided at the geographic point of origin for Rooibos tea, regularly
encountered and studied wild Rooibos, and possessed intimate knowledge of this crop that in
part derived from oral histories regarding the initial development of agricultural varieties. With
support from an environmental organization, one small farmer cooperative was investing in
seedling studies to “capture local knowledge” and “build leadership”. Some members of the
decertified cooperative were informally running their own tests with no resources or support.
These producers wanted to work with the seedling scientists, though they felt that testing should
occur in in their communities and with their direct involvement.
The Rooibos Council was open to farmer participation but expressed uncertainty about how
to proceed with a multi-stakeholder effort. In addition to the race- and class-based divisions
separating estate and small-scale farmers, the differential knowledge of farmers and experts gave
rise to language barriers. When the Council attempted to connect farmers to seedling scientists
during its 2010 general meeting, the technical language used in the scientific presentations
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 17
stymied the potential for productive discussion. Not only did the session end with rancorous
questioning from white farmers, there was no opportunity for stakeholders to discuss the seedling
issue in smaller groups. The open-forum format effectively silenced the few coloured producers
in attendance. While small-scale farmer leaders had arrived at the meeting with a number of
ideas that they wished to share, they felt intimidated by the scientific language of the
presentations as well as by the acrimonious discussion that subsequently ensued.
The Biodiversity Initiative
The Right Rooibos campaign grew out of a biodiversity initiative that began in 2006 in response
to the negative impact of expanded Rooibos cultivation on rare regional flora. At that time, the
Rooibos Council worked with environmental organizations to develop an environmental
management plan and to introduce a set of guidelines for farmers. As efforts grew, the initiative
worked with industry stakeholders to integrate market considerations with guidelines for
biodiversity protection. In 2008, the Council launched Right Rooibos as a market-based
initiative, and sought to integrate broader stakeholders into the project in order to build support.
As part of this process, the campaign promoted a set of sustainability standards designed to
capture key social, economic, and environmental protocols then produced a handbook for
implementing these standards (Pretorius, Harley and Ryser 2011).
Recognizing that industries cannot change practices or behaviors without retaining some
control over the value chain, the campaign sought to strengthen the position of the Rooibos
industry in markets by instituting an integrated management system that could adapt to growing
demand for sustainably produced goods. With a social goal of extending market prospects for
marginal groups, it sought to reduce certification costs by promoting an industry label that would
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 18
be capable of capturing multiple certifications in a single auditing stream. For this to work, the
label had to exceed the requirements of international standards such as Fairtrade. To offset the
difficulties involved in meeting a stringent industry label, the campaign also worked on
instituting a Rooibos extension system that would deliver training and support to producers. It
was hoped that this extension system would provide a unified framework to: (1) ensure
environmentally sound agricultural practices; (2) support less-advantaged farmers; and (3)
develop commercially sustainable practices.
Despite the potential of an industry label, Right Rooibos suffered from a lack of resources
and failed to secure broad-based alignment. Some firms were wary of any Council effort to
streamline the industry as they felt that this could lead to a re-centralization of power. During a
Right Rooibos event, white estate farmers stated that they appreciated the possibility of single
audits and reduced costs, but these also noted the challenges involved in meeting existing
standards and expressed concerns regarding the stringency of the proposed label. In 2011, the
campaign halted its efforts to institute an industry label. However, in addition to retaining its
focus on extension services, Right Rooibos has continued to promote alignment with various
sustainability certifications. Noting that commercial sustainability is dependent upon social and
environmental responsibility, the Project Manager stated that certifications are merely a means to
an end as “the ultimate goal is for farmers to implement sustainability standards not because a
label requires it, but because this makes good business sense.”
The Farmer Leadership Initiative
In 2010, a South African training services provider responded to the challenges facing coloured
Rooibos farmers by instituting a shared leadership training program.3 As this predominantly
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 19
small-scale population lacked a cohesive leadership network due to geographic distances and
turmoil wrought by the failure of the Fair Packers initiative, this initiative involved forming a
network of community-based farmer leaders then training this group in sustainability standards,
management, and leadership. The leadership project established an equitable framework for
engagement by soliciting training interests and holding democratic elections for farmer leaders in
the participating communities. It also ensured gender inclusivity by asking each area to elect
both a male and a female farmer leader. As a result, women comprised nearly half of the
leadership network which subsequently participated in a series of multi-day training sessions and
networking events. The program concluded with information exchanges between farmers, farmer
leaders, and professional actors interested in Rooibos sustainability.
Over the course of the project, industry and organizational stakeholders facilitated training
sessions and many in the industry expressed an interest in building alliances with coloured
Rooibos producers. A major processing firm provided space for the leadership workshops,
arguing that emerging farmers represented “entrepreneurs” who “cannot grow their businesses if
they do not make direct connections with actors at multiple levels in the value chain.” The
processing firm involved in the CSR project likewise opened its doors to the leadership team via
a tour of its facility and a meeting with its lead operative. Fairtrade and Right Rooibos actors
provided the leaders with training, and the Rooibos Council worked with them to ensure an
enabling environment within its umbrella network. As a result of this engagement, in early 2011
one of the leaders was elected to the Rooibos Council’s governing board, and another was
selected as his deputy.
Despite these promising outcomes, the program experienced several limitations that stymied
the ability of the leadership network to expand upon project efforts. First, the farmer leaders
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 20
lacked access to financial and material resources and the project could not resolve these
structural disparities. As nearly all of the leaders lacked access to modern telecommunications
infrastructure, it was unclear whether the network could be maintained once the project ended.
Second, training was purposively limited to predominantly small-scale emerging farmers in order
to prioritize their concerns. This strategy supported a marginal population during a period of
production and market turbulence, but as a result the leaders had little opportunity to build
connections with white estate farmers who were experiencing similar market challenges. After
listening to the concerns of white commercial farmers at Rooibos events, some of the farmer
leaders expressed a desire to collaborate with this group, but they lacked the material resources
to pursue such an agenda.
The five initiatives discussed in this section either sought to benefit from or improve access
to sustainability standards and certifications. Addressing the question of sustainability in
different ways, these efforts engaged multiple development approaches, including third-sector
regulation, CSR, and shared leadership. Yet, each initiative experienced significant problems,
and none were able to demonstrate sustainable outcomes despite considerable resource and time
investments. In the following section, we analyze the structural and relational barriers impeding
Rooibos activities, clarifying common challenges to market-based sustainability. We then
explore broader potentials, providing suggestions for policy and practice.
THE PROMISE AND PERILS OF MARKET-BASED SUSTAINABILITY
As neoliberal trading practices have shifted the balance of power from producers to buyers, value
addition has become an important tool for Southern groups seeking to expand their presence in
world markets (Gibbon and Ponte 2005). Due to growing demand for goods that meet socially
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 21
and environmentally responsible standards, upgrading increasingly involves entry into certified
markets. While many of these efforts claim to support the interests of marginal groups, scholars
have highlighted the risks involved in product upgrading (Ponte and Ewert 2009) as well as the
difficulties involved in linking markets to conservation agendas (McEwan, Hughes and Bek
2014). As much of the discourse has focused on product upgrading, Talbot (2002) has argued in
favor of studying broader upgrading actions, such as efforts to change policies and organizational
environments. Yet, scholars and professionals have tended to narrowly focus on specific
certifications and practices, limiting understanding and hindering the development of more
Not only does the Rooibos case study substantiate the perils of market-based sustainability,
the breadth of research findings demonstrates the challenges involved in achieving more
systemic transformations. This first half of this section shows how structural and relational
barriers mutually reinforced a culture of risk and dependency across a range of initiatives. Yet,
while these barriers hindered the development of more equitable arrangements, the influence of
social standards in Rooibos demonstrates the promise of market-based sustainability. The second
half of this article shares examples of good practice. As part of our discussion, we suggest the
potential role that social standards may play in terms of diffusing power and risk.
Structural and Relational Barriers
Numerous research participants expressed a desire to transform the Rooibos industry from a
model of racial exclusion to one of interracial inclusion. Yet, progress was stymied by complex
barriers that served to mutually reinforce racial disparities. These broadly included: (1)
inequitable access to land and resources; (2) significant gaps in training, in part due to a failure to
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 22
articulate B-BBEE in the small farmer context; and (3) relational challenges deriving from
decades of racial conditioning and reinforced by top-down systems of management.
First, small-scale farmers experienced severe land shortages. In the region experiencing
cooperative turmoil, an industry informant stated that hundreds of farmers were working small
plots of land that in total would comprise two average-sized estates. Not only was most of the
Cederberg interior unsuitable for agriculture, much of the land was reserved for wilderness
conservation. In areas where arable tracts were more plentiful, land generally was owned by
whites who, according to some informants, refused to sell to coloured farmers. The broader
literature corroborates these disparities. In 1994, about 83 percent of South Africa’s commercial
farmland was white-owned and by 2007 only five percent of this land had been transferred to
people of color (Chikulo 2015). During apartheid, Church missions generally controlled access
to plots of arable land in coloured rural areas, and reform in these areas has been stymied by the
fact that there is not enough land to support equitable private ownership (Ntsebeza 2005). While
the coloured farmers involved in the CSR campaign had successfully achieved land reforms,
arable land was more plentiful in their southern region. In contrast, most small-scale Rooibos
producers have continued to rely upon a system of nominal rents to secure access to Cederberg
plots; and the stark reality is that there is not enough land to meet all of their needs.
Second, our research uncovered significant gaps in technical training and support that partly
derived from a failure to articulate economic empowerment in the context of small-scale farmers.
The post-apartheid state has instituted B-BBEE codes to promote the entry of people of color
into positions of management and ownership, and it largely supports this entry by stipulating
access to technical training (DTI 2009). In South Africa, Fairtrade certifiers have sought to
address racial disparities on estates by aligning its efforts with those of the post-apartheid state
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 23
(Keahey 2015). In products such as wine, the Fairtrade-B-BBEE alliance has provided estates
with an opportunity to address the extreme abuses endured by farmworkers under apartheid
(Linton 2012). Yet, strategies for implementing B-BBEE in the small farmer context have
remained underdeveloped. Whereas Fairtrade estates are audited to ensure that training occurs,
no such system has been put into place for small farmer organizations where both members and
managerial staff struggle to obtain access to market and managerial training. Not only did the
lack of technical support hinder the ability of small-scale farmers to manage access to certified
markets, the entry of white-owned Rooibos estates into Fairtrade exchanges helped to fuel a
crisis that led to the demise of a large producer organization.
Third, we found that decades of racial conditioning hindered the potential for multi-
stakeholder collaboration. Nandy (1997:168) has used the term “colonization of the mind” to
clarify the psychological consequences of colonialism. Such forms of racial conditioning
expanded under apartheid, when the South African state codified white supremacy via a series of
legal maneuvers that placed white people into positions of authority and privileged European
sources of knowledge (Keahey 2016). In Rooibos, we found that “experts” generally were white
and “beneficiaries” were coloured. During interviews, some small-scale farmers expressed a
sense of insecurity about communicating with white actors, with whom they often had little
contact. At public meetings, white stakeholders were assertive and readily assumed positions of
authority whereas coloured stakeholders remained quiet and deferential. Finally, the top-down
nature of engagement reinforced these racial imbalances. Event facilitators rarely solicited the
input of coloured stakeholders and most of the sustainability initiatives were led by white actors.
Although some efforts were made to address these power dimensions, opportunities for
interracial connection were stymied by geographic distances and resource shortages.
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 24
As a consequence of these complex barriers, the five initiatives exacerbated risk and
dependency. First, neither the Fairtrade nor CSR actions ensured producer access to market
training. In the case of Fairtrade, this lack of support exposed a marginal population to additional
financial hardship. Second, methods for connecting scientists with farmers have been available
for decades (Pretty 1995). Yet, there was no attempt to secure producer involvement with
organic seedling research. Not only did the lack of interest in farmer knowledge disenfranchise
this population, the failure to develop seedlings heightened uncertainty regarding the future of
organic production. Third, while the biodiversity campaign promised reduced certification costs,
the Right Rooibos label was rejected due to a perceived risk of centralized control, leaving
marginal groups particularly vulnerable to fluctuating market demands. Finally, the shared
leadership program made strides in addressing relational barriers, but failed to resolve the
resource shortages that precluded marginal groups from managing their own affairs. Despite
these challenges, we found examples of good practice that offer insight into the policies needed
to transcend ideological and material differences.
Potential for Growth
We uncovered three examples of good practice that suggest the ongoing potential of market-
based sustainability. These include: (1) shared leadership; (2) long-term commitment; and (3)
systemic upgrading. First, the shared leadership program addressed barriers in stakeholder
knowledge and relations via participatory training and networking. Not only did the training
program provide farmer leaders with access to technical knowledge, it addressed local power
imbalances by opening forums for multidirectional learning to occur. Second, some Fairtrade
buyers remained committed to small farmers after the entry of estates into Fairtrade exchanges.
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 25
These buyers supported two small farmer cooperatives during a time of market turmoil, helping
to ensure their viability. As expressed in Fairtrade’s Charter of Principles (WFTO and FTI 2009)
long-term partnerships are critical for marginal groups who require some measure of market
stability. Third, the biodiversity campaign developed an innovative framework for industry
upgrading. While this effort failed to advance the Right Rooibos label, it offered critical insight
into the systemic investments needed to realize market-based sustainability, including the dual
need for reduced certification costs and responsive extension systems.
Despite the challenges of navigating sustainability standards and certifications, most small-
scale farmers continued to desire access to these markets. This was because sustainable trade
systems provided small-scale Rooibos producers with some measure of competitive advantage.
This group was unable to produce the quantity of tea required to fare well in conventional
markets, but they could supply organic tea produced under fair conditions at the point of origin
for Rooibos. As such, certified cooperatives were uniquely positioned to meet sustainability
criteria. While buyer interest in these qualities are reflective of broader postcolonial narratives of
sustainability (Besky 2014), it is important to note that, in Rooibos, these narratives were
actively employed by small farmer cooperatives seeking to offset critical land and resource
shortages. In contrast to white industry respondents who typically defined the value of small
farmer tea in terms of flavor, small-scale farmers repeatedly invoked the language of pristine
nature and cultural heritage.
Markets are unlikely to realize environmentally sustainable and socially just outcomes
without fundamentally transforming the terms of engagement. Yet, social standards are
providing small-scale farmers with a platform to negotiate better terms. In particular, the
involvement of global civil society in markets is generating opportunities for developing
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 26
ideologically diverse coalitions (Del Felice 2012). Alternative commodity networks give rise to
multiple centers of power by mobilizing information and resources, disrupting the vertical power
of conventional value chain governance. While the more diffuse nature of power in networks
theoretically supports stakeholder involvement, in practice, decision making is by no means
immune from elite cooptation (Lund and Saito-Jensen 2013). Not only do dominant groups
possess greater authority, horizontal imbalances play a central role in maintaining unequal
arrangements in local arenas (Phillips 2014). Thus, network actors are “constrained and
empowered by the geographies and contexts within which governing occurs” (Griffin 2012:215).
If these challenges are to be effectively addressed, more inclusive policies and practices must
be developed. According to VanderHoff Boersma (2009) development programs often state an
interest in supporting marginal interests without taking their knowledge and concerns seriously.
The Rooibos study found a similar gap between intension and practice. This gap fueled the
failure of multiple Rooibos sustainability initiatives, generating uncertainty regarding the broader
potential of market-based sustainability. Yet, small-scale Rooibos farmers maintained an interest
in sustainability standards and certifications and expressed a desire for further collaboration.
With an intimate understanding of their constraints, this population stressed the importance of
reducing costs, extending services, and ensuring stakeholder participation through the formation
of shared leadership networks that support the entry of marginal groups into commodity planning
This article has contributed to the development discourse in three key ways. First, previous
studies have examined the question of market-based sustainability within the context of specific
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 27
certifications and practices. In contrast, we clarify common challenges and broader potentials by
capturing a range of initiatives as they occurred within the Rooibos industry at one point in time.
Second, our research findings demonstrate how complex barriers mutually reinforce inequitable
terms of engagement. Employing the commodity network approach (Raynolds 2002, 2009), we
offer a more complete assessment of the power dynamics shaping Rooibos engagement, with
particular focus on structural and relational barriers. Third, we provide insight into the types of
policies needed to improve sustainability outcomes, both by capturing historical, social, and
environmental influences and by illustrating examples of good practice.
As we have discussed, the Rooibos industry operates within inequitable terrain that has been
shaped by the trajectory of colonial settlement and apartheid-era governance as well as by
neoliberal transformations that have privileged the role of buyers in value chains. In response to
growing demand for goods produced according to socially and environmentally responsible
standards, Rooibos actors sought to improve production and trade practices by investing in a
range of market, research, and training initiatives. With some exceptions, these efforts were
uncoordinated and maintained top-down systems of planning and management, resulting in the
subordination of marginal groups to elite interests. Moreover, none of the initiatives secured
sustainable outcomes. Despite these challenges, we found that sustainability standards provided
small-scale farmers with a critical platform to pursue more equitable arrangements. In our view,
this platform may be strengthened by instituting policies that facilitate the shift from vertical to
relational governance. To diffuse power and risk, professionals should focus on reducing
certification costs, extending support services, and ensuring the active inclusion of stakeholders
in planning and governance. These tasks will not be easy to realize, but they are vital to the
future of market-based sustainability.
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 28
JENNIFER KEAHEY is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Senior Sustainability Scholar at
Arizona State University. Her work examines the power dynamics of sustainable development,
with particular focus on the experiences of marginal groups. She uses qualitative and action
research methods to clarify hidden barriers to sustainability, offering insight into policy and
practice. Broadly interested in emerging economies, Keahey has conducted fieldwork in South
Africa, Ghana, and Latvia. Her work has been published in Globalizations (2016), Handbook of
Research on Fair Trade (2015), and Routledge Companion to Alternative Organization (2014).
DOUGLAS L. MURRAY is Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of the Center for Fair and
Alternative Trade at Colorado State University. In addition to publishing three books and dozens
of scholarly articles on agricultural development and social change, he has co-edited the widely
cited study, Fair Trade: The Challenges of Transforming Globalization (2007). He has been
twice awarded grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and has been a
Fulbright Senior Research Scholar. For over four decades, Murray has advised governments,
development agencies, and others on agricultural development, social justice, and sustainability.
This research was supported by HortCRSP grant 09-002945-10. Co-led by the Center for Fair &
Alternative Trade (CFAT) and the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS),
the HortCRSP project collaborated with a regional training provider and small-scale Rooibos
farmers to institute the shared leadership initiative discussed in this article.
Keahey and Murray | Promise and Perils of Market-based Sustainability 29
1. In South Africa, the term coloured refers to indigenous and mixed-race individuals
who represent the majority population of South Africa’s Western Cape Province, where Rooibos
2. One estate farmer claimed that he had achieved preliminary successes with his organic
seedlings though more work needed to be done. While he had not been asked to participate in the
scientific research project, this respondent was unwilling to share any information regarding his
experiments as he felt that having the sole ability to produce organic seedlings would provide
him with a competitive market edge.
3. The lead author was embedded within the leadership network as a participant observer
and the leaders were active research participants during fieldwork in farming communities. The
analysis provided in this article derives solely from our interpretation of the findings.
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