The fair-trade system is concerned with responsible production and consumption patterns, and may therefore contribute to the achievement of sustainable development. To ensure the functioning of this system, there exist intermediate organizations that act as a bridge between highly different and partially asymmetric contexts, such as manufacturing companies from emerging countries and profit companies from developed countries. Several studies have already shown the role these organizations play in promoting the creation of manufacturing companies in less developed countries and in fostering the introduction in western markets of goods deriving from this more sustainable supply chain. The literature, however, has still not dealt with the specific role of intermediate organizations from a strategic, long-term perspective. Adopting ambidexterity theory, the aim of the research is to investigate whether a fair-trade intermediate organization can be defined ambidextrous in the sense that it simultaneously pursues exploration and exploitation activities and sustainability and profitability related goals. Subsequently, the research aims also to understand the modalities in which explorative and exploitative competences are shared and transferred within the organizations belonging the same fair-trade system. To achieve these purposes, the study adopts a qualitative approach, based on in-depth interviews, besides the analysis of financial performances of seven organizations: one intermediate organization, three manufacturing companies from emerging countries and three buyer companies downstream in the supply chain. Results show that the intermediate organization encourages innovation and ensures efficiency and it engages in ambidexterity to favor in turn the reduction of the asymmetry of partner companies. The balance between exploration and exploitation inside the intermediate organization is however still to be achieved. The research adds insights to current knowledge about ambidexterity in practice and, as first time, it applies ambidexterity theory to the fair-trade system. In addition, direct managerial implications for the entire fair-trade system can be derived.
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