A Defence of Fair Trade

by Gemma Harvey

Fair trade aspires to even the terms of trade by paying producers (of tea, coffee, etc.) more than the market rate, an arrangement that is communicated to consumers by way of a certification label. As an economic anthropologist, fair trade incites me into self-reflexive, analytical chaos. On the one hand, I am aware that buying my coffee fair trade will not transform the structural forces of neoliberal exploitation. Yet, I am still seduced by the arguments that fair trade contributes to wage justice; that it can ‘defetishise’ commodities like coffee by drawing attention to the social conditions of their production; and even, perhaps, that buying fair trade could constitute an act of everyday resistance to the competitive drive of laissez-faire economics. Anthropologists have written numerous critiques, and pointed to the many flaws of the fair trade model, yet the desire of social justice pulls us towards it. Even if fair trade cannot wholly transform capitalist trade relations, at least it can insist on fair wages and concern for the social welfare of producers. After so much critique, with this post I want to return to the three key attributes which fair trade offers.

Scale: Most ethical trade initiatives only work on a small scale. But fair trade has successfully scaled up to worldwide proportions, linking consumers and producers around the globe. Fair trade operates in 74 producing countries in the global South, and products are readily available to a mass market of consumers across Europe and North America. Although there has been scepticism about the participation of big brands (Moberg 2008), their involvement in fair trade could in fact be a sign that the ethical consumer is becoming a ‘global dictator’ (Miller 1995: 8-9) of labour standads. Even if the big brands jump on the fair trade bandwagon simply for publicity, the need for these brands to demonstrate their ‘ethics’ shows the power of consumers to demand such things.

fair trade 6
Fair trade map © pinterest.com

Uniting Consumer with Producer: In a typical Marxist fashion, I have to include the defence that fair trade seeks to defetishise commodities by reuniting the alienated consumer to the producer and their conditions of labour. Core to the ideology of fair trade is that, ‘the values of cooperation and solidarity represent a challenge to the capitalist imperatives of competition, accumulation… individualism, and anonymity’ (Fridell, 2007: 281). It is important to note the critiques of the authenticity of the consumer/producer relationship: ‘the social relations signified when fair-trade coffee is defetishized are those of charity at a distance’ (Lyon, 2011: 190). However, I think that there is an important distinction to be made between charity and fair trade. Fair trade consumption involves a reflection of one’s own actions and participation in the global economy; it comes from a stance of justice—not of charitable benevolence. Therefore to seek to impact the world by facing up to your own role in the structures of global trade, is more of a sturdy base for change than altruistic, charitable giving to distant others.

fashion 5

Fair trade brand People Tree at London Fashion Week (blog.peopletree.co.uk)

The Moral Economy: With fair trade ‘people are urged to convert their moral values into monetary terms’ (Carrier and Wilk, 2012: 201). As a political and moral action, fair trade has potential to be transformative, creating a moral economy that subverts capitalist goals. However as numerous ethnographies have shown, there are limits to fair trade’s transformative power. For example, fair trade remains entrenched in power dynamics, reflected in the certification demands set by policy makers in the global North, removed from sites of production in the global South. Yet even if we succumb to a Foucauldian conclusion that power dynamics are inescapable, fair trade can be seen to be working from inside the belly of the beast. By working within the structure of the market, fair trade inserts morality into the amoral economy.

For all the criticisms of fair trade, there is still potential for fair trade to fulfil a transformative and alternative vision, and this, perhaps, is why we anthropologists still buy our coffee fair trade!

Gemma Harvey is a student on the MA in the Social Anthropology of the Global Economy at the University of Sussex.


Carrier, J., Wilk, R. (2012) ‘Conclusion’ in Carrier, J. and Luetchford, P. (eds.) Ethical Consumption, Social Value and Economic Practice. New York: Berghahn Books, 201-211.

Fridell, G. (2007) ‘Conclusion: Fair Trade as Moral Economy’, in Fridell, G. (ed.) Fair Trade Coffee: the Prospects and Pitfalls of Market-driven Social Justice. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 276-292.

Lyon, S. (2011) Coffee and Community: Maya Farmers and Fair-trade Markets. Colorado: University Press of Colorado.

Miller, D. (1995a) ‘Consumption as the Vanguard of History: A Polemic by Way of an Introduction’, in Miller, D. (ed.) Acknowledging Consumption: A Review of New Studies. London: Routledge, pp. 1-57.

Moberg, M. (2008) ‘Conclusion: A New World or a New Kind of Dependence?’, in Moberg, M. (ed.) Slipping Away: Banana Politics and Fair Trade in the Eastern Caribbean. New York: Berghahn Books, pp. 220-230.


  1. Thank you for your response! I would ask if fair trade exists because of the failure of these government and local institutions to regulate labour practices, is the existence of fair trade complicit in allowing neoliberal governments to get off scott free in shedding their responsibilities? Or perhaps fair trade is emblematic of civil society and activists who have lost faith in government capacities that are whole heartedly in the hands of the market? Gemma


  2. I enjoyed your essay, and provoked a short response. I don’t think it is up to us to judge fair trade as theory. As anthropologists we know that good intentions often go awry, and that the way a project is implemented is often more important than the intention behind it. Like organic production, many small producers find the documentation required for certification is just beyond their means. This means there are always economies of scale, favoring larger producers or cooperatives over smaller farms or groups. Forcing farmers to join cooperatives on a Western model so they can get certified also puts a great deal of burden on the producer.

    Another way to look at fair trade, is that it puts justice onto the shoulders of a coffee drinker, only because of the failure of local institutions. Producers associations and government agencies should be the ones who regulate labor practices, not some NGO, no matter how well-intentioned, or individual consumers. Why should justice for workers be a “choice” for millions of coffee drinkers far away? In a this is just another form of neoliberal shedding of government function and responsibility for the general welfare.

    Lately I’ve been thinking about recycling in the same way – why should I be the one responsible for cleaning up the trash I never wanted to take home in the first place? Recycling means that I and my local government are now helping to produce cheap raw materials for industry.

    As for the question of whether or not big producers can be “fair” – it has to be judged on a case-by-case basis. And we have to accept that sometimes many coats of greenwash can actually produce green.

    Thank you for the opening of a good conversation.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s