Combining capabilities and fair trade: the case of fair trade towns and fair trade schools

Ballet, Jerome (1); Carimentrand, Aurelie (2); Blundo Canto, Genowefa (2) (2019). 'Combining capabilities and fair trade: the case of fair trade towns and fair trade schools' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


The capability approach, in its initial formulations, is fundamentally based on opportunities that people have and have good reasons to value (Sen, 1993, Alkire, 2005). This approach fits into ethical individualism (Robeyns, 2005). Sen recognizes, however, that a person's capabilities are socially dependent on others: “The option that a person has depend greatly on relations with other and on what the state and other institutions do”. (Drèze and Sen, 2002, p.6). Several works on capabilities have gone beyond this framework and argue for collective capabilities, that is, capabilities that arise from social interactions between people and are not just the sum of individual capabilities (Ibrahim, 2008; Panet, 2008). It is in fact important to recognize collective dynamics in the creation of opportunities (Comim and Carey, 2001).

It is possible, however, that the social interactions do not produce collective capabilities, in the sense given above, but they can nevertheless cause an increase in individual capabilities. In this sense, social interactions bring about a combination of capabilities that can either generate collective capabilities, or combinations of individual capabilities that do not transform into collective capabilities, but nevertheless only make sense through social interactions. These capabilities can be called combined capabilities.

This article aims to explore the difference between collective capabilities and combined capabilities through the Fair trade case. Fair Trade is an international activist movement that aims to improve the living conditions of producers in the Global South through consumer purchases in the Global North, via price guarantee system and purchase agreements with producers (See, for example, Raynolds and Greenfield, 2015, for an update on this movement). This movement has taken a new turn for the past ten years with new campaigns, notably the "Fair Trade Towns" and "Fair Trade Schools" campaigns. The first campaign aims to create a local dynamic around Fair trade by involving local populations but also public and private institutions such as town halls, restaurants and hotels, shops in general, etc. This campaign has already resulted in the certification of 2,137 territories worldwide ( The second campaign, more recent, aims to promote Fair trade in schools and universities, whatever the level. The aim is to raise young people's awareness of inequalities in international trade and to promote fairer trade mechanisms. We will use these two campaign examples, particularly through specific cases in India and France, to illustrate the difference between collective capabilities and combined capabilities. It seems to us in particular, and this will be one of the issues discussed, that "Fair trade towns" generate collective capabilities, while “Fair trade schools" rather produce combined capabilities.

These illustrations will eventually lead us to discuss the impact evaluation of Fair trade. Impact studies on this movement have focused mainly on the impact on producers living conditions. However, assessing the effects of these campaigns in terms of collective or combined capabilities requires the implementation of complex impact assessments. We will emphasize the importance of complex assessment methods to understand collective capabilities and combined capabilities. We will show that complex assessment methods are more in line with the Fair trade underlying theory of change than the standardized impact assessment we can find in researches on Fair trade.  

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