Fair trade (FT) organisations have been quite early taken as examples of social enterprises (SE) and have contributed to the shaping of the SE concept. The goal of this article is to examine more deeply, both at a conceptual and at an empirical level, to what extent FT organisations can be considered as social enterprises. First, we introduce different theoretical frameworks of SE and examine FT in the context of each of these frameworks. In a second step, we use an empirical study on fair trade social enterprises (FTSEs) across four European countries to illustrate and deepen the links between FT and SE, focusing on the goals and the governance structures of FTSEs.
It appears that all FTSEs combine in some way economic, social and sometimes also political goals. FTSEs are thus in line with the “hybrid-goal” nature of SEs. FTSEs’ governance is also quite specific and often innovative in terms of organisational architecture and stakeholders’ involvement. Some FTSEs are closer to the European – participatory – approach of social enterprise, while others are closer to US – individual – approaches. Finally, the governance structures of FTSEs seem to reflect quite well their goal mix.
This article provides a more solid basis for the often implicit link between FT and SE. Future researches could use our work to explore specific topics of the SE literature (e.g. stakeholders’ involvement) in the context of FT. The FT example could also be used to examine further the shifting boundaries of the SE reality. The originality of this article is to apply the SE concept to a specific field and to show how, within this field, there is at the same time (1) a diversity of organisations, reflecting the diversity of SE approaches and (2) a range of specific features (especially in terms of goal mix and governance) distinguishing SEs from other types of organisations operating in the same field.