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Global Development Institute

An Information Systems Perspective on Ethical Trade and Self-Regulation

Richard Duncombe and Richard Heeks


Increasing numbers of ethical trade initiatives are being launched, reflecting concerns about the limited benefits that globalising trade brings to producers in developing countries. Ethical trade is an information-intensive activity. Yet little is known about the role of information systems in supporting ethical trade. This paper provides an preliminary conceptualisation of ethical trade regulatory information systems. It presents models and issues in relation to both information, and information and communication technologies. Ethical trade - with its voluntary codes and consumer campaigns - also represents a new approach to interaction between market actors. This is the approach of self-regulation, that moves beyond binding state regulation and sanctions to something seen as more appropriate to a globalised, liberalised economy. Findings about information systems and ethical trade therefore also advance our understanding of self-regulation.

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Educator's guide

Synopsis questions

  1. What is ethical trade? [part A]
  2. Why has ethical trade arisen? Who is involved in ethical trade? [part A]
  3. What role does information play in ethical trade systems? In what ways may ethical trade regulatory information systems differ from one another? [part B]
  4. What role may ICTs play in ethical trade? [part C]
  5. What key information- and ICT-related issues are relevant to ETRIS? [parts B & C]
  6. What is self-regulation, and how does it relate to ethical trade and to ethical trade's information and ICT issues? [part D]

Development questions

  1. Select an ethical trade issue (e.g. child labour, union recognition, fair pay, workplace safety, etc).  Then:
    • Identify key stakeholders who would be involved in the monitoring and control of this issue.
    • Design an information system that would capture, process and output relevant data.
    • Identify what role ICTs could play in the information system.
  2. Identify an ethical trade (or, failing that, a fair trade) Web site.  Treat it as an ethical trade regulatory information system (ETRIS) and then:
    • Map out an overview picture of its ethical trade data content, and identify what data quality issues might affect this content.
    • Answer the other ETRIS evaluation questions as best you can for the Web site.
    • Evaluate the site in two other ways: in relation to the stakeholders it involves (as data sources or processors or recipients); and deciding whether it provides a 'monitoring' or a 'monitoring and comparison' information system.
    • Consider what value - if any - ICTs have brought to this ETRIS.
    • Finally, draw some overall conclusions about the site as an ETRIS.
  3. Web-enabled systems are often said to have three initial chronological stages: publishing (one-way provision of data); communication (two-way, interactive development of information); and transactions (conducting trade/service processes online).  What can each of these offer to ethical trade?  What challenges/issues might they raise?
  4. Discuss the pros and cons of ICT-enabled disintermediation vs. ICT-enabled reintermediation in the provision of ethical trade data and ethical trade services to consumers.
  5. The paper mainly discusses information in the operation of producer-focused ethical trade initiatives.  But what role does information play in other aspects of ethical trade, e.g. in the planning of ethical trade initiatives, and in advocacy work?  Can you develop any informational models or issues for these 'other aspects'?
  6. The Internet is - in many ways - a self-regulatory system.  What implications might this paper raise for governance of the Internet?