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Consuming Social Justice

This article attempts to move beyond totalising cynicism, as well as unbridled optimism, towards a more nuanced understanding of fair trade. I explore the contradictions and paradoxes of using consumer practices to build bridges of socio-economic solidarity across core and periphery. More specifically, I want to determine how fair-trade discourse constructs understandings of development, consumerism, and global justice.

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A growing number of consumer products in core regions of the global economy are designed and marketed to placate the conscience of the uncomfortable consumer. Everything from ethical mutual funds, to coffee beans, to Nike’s ‘no harm clothing’, are presented as part of ‘alternative’ consumption practices that minimise the exploitation of a globalised economy, and promote principles of ‘fair trade’. Following the wave of ‘environmentally friendly’ products, some fair-trade advocates predict a trend towards greater consumer demand for products produced under fair conditions.

The Fair Trade Federation claims that this provides ‘one of the best alternative models for economically just and sustainable development’. Others suggest that fair trade is simply a marketing coup that has captured a conscientious yuppy consumer niche. One Canadian writer, for example, described the growth of ‘Third World chic’ and alternative trade organisations (ATOs) with utter resignation: ‘Maybe it’s true that the best the world’s poor can hope for is better pimps for their products’.

But can we afford to be so dismissive — especially in an age where neo-liberal globalisation remains largely unchallenged, consumerism prevails as a dominant source of identities, and lifestyle politics stands out as the most prevalent contemporary form of North American resistance?

This article attempts to move beyond totalising cynicism, as well as unbridled optimism, towards a more nuanced understanding of fair trade. I explore the contradictions and paradoxes of using consumer practices to build bridges of socio-economic solidarity across core and periphery. More specifically, I want to determine how fair-trade discourse constructs understandings of development, consumerism, and global justice.

A critical but sympathetic viewpoint is essential here, since many fair-trade projects are well intentioned, and there is evidence to suggest that certain peripheral groups benefit from these connections, such as Third World communities which are provided with access to necessary technologies.

What is fair trade?

Although definitions vary, fair trade is generally presented as an alternative to the global trading system. It promotes trade based on relationships of mutual respect and co-operation rather than profit. Trade is based on a fair price, often defined as providing a ‘living wage’ for producers. In addition, fair-trade organisations usually commit to purchasing directly from small producers, providing access to credit and technical assistance, encouraging sustainable environmental practices, establishing long-term relationships with producers based on mutual respect, and supporting democratically run workers’ co-operatives.

The fair-trade sector has not evolved in a vacuum. To a significant degree, it is a response to a situation where consumerism and corporate power reign supreme. There is an ever-expanding criterion for consumer ‘necessities’, and there is diminished support for public goods and the taxation system, and relatively little criticism of consumerism as a way of life. While environmentalist doomsayers warn of impending ecological catastrophes, the dominant indicators of the good life still tend to prioritise consumer goods over happy families or meaningful work. While income inequality grew in the 1980s and 1990s, consumer aspirations for both the poor and the rich expanded. Virtually everybody wanted more stuff.

Some may argue that consumerism is a more diverse, pleasurable phenomena than I am presenting. I would happily concede that there is personal pleasure and even a sense of empowerment in buying new things. Moreover, I do not deny that products are used in ways not intended by their producers. Recognising microspheres of power within consumer culture is clearly important, but this should not blind us to broader patterns of powerlessness and exploitation.

In consumer societies the dominant modus operandi of identity construction is through our choices as a sovereign consumer. The consumer-sovereignty ideal endorses the general principle underlying market theory: that the pursuit of individual self-interest leads to a greater common good. Each individual, rational consumer looking out for their own interest is not a drain on common resources, but a powerful source of collective good. Under the ideal of consumer sovereignty, when we are poor, it is our choice to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. If our conscience is troubled by our wealth relative to the world’s poor, we have a choice to buy fairly traded products.

So while people strive to express their individuality through ‘sovereign’ decisions over certain products, the whole premise of consumerism as a soul-wrenching, ecologically devastating way of life is not rigorously questioned in the mainstream public sphere. Counter-cultural consumption has come to mean consuming differently — not consuming less. Clearly a dramatic reduction in consumption would be impossible without a serious challenge to the dominance of consumer sovereignty in North America. Consumerism and citizenship may not be readily compatible, unless Western citizens go beyond token efforts to embrace the difficult set of choices involved with a resource-responsible global citizenship.

Bearing this in mind, I want to suggest that an alternative to neo-liberal globalism must fulfil minimum criteria. It must be committed to promoting transnational economic democracy based on economic, political, and cultural equality and autonomy; it must be underpinned by a practice of citizenship based on equal access to resources, cultural identities and democratic projects; and it must be sustainable.

To what extent does fair trade fulfil these criteria for an effective alternative to neo-liberal globalism?

A useful starting point to answer this question is by a careful analysis of the claims of fair-trade organisations themselves. TransFair USA defines its agenda ambitiously as being to ‘redefine the producer-consumer relationship’, claiming that, ‘Fair trade can and will connect issues of global poverty with the negative externalities of American consumerism and produce new, powerful and productive relationships’.

These are clearly good intentions, which seem beyond reproach or criticism. Contradictions arise, however, when these good intentions are translated into appeals to sell fair-trade products in consumer societies like those of North America. There are three particularly troubling contradictions, or themes, that cast doubt on the potential of fair-trade discourse to provide a counter-politics to neo-liberalism. The first is an unquestioned support for consumer sovereignty. The second concerns support for micro-lifestyle politics over politicised, public-sphere awareness. The third relates to the way in which fair trade can sometimes, perhaps unintentionally, normalise underdevelopment and over-consumption. I want to deal with each in turn.

Consumer sovereignty: thirty-two flavours and then some

A focus on individual choice and consumer sovereignty is a persistent theme in fair-trade discourse — a theme that makes for some rather strange bedfellows. Political leaders throughout the industrialised world have been able to use ideals of consumer sovereignty to identify with the feelings of the ‘masses’. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, for example, presented the model of consumer choice as an adequate framework for all forms of citizenship. A similar idea of ‘voting with your dollar’ is heavily emphasised in fair-trade discourse. Fair-trade seminars often end on this inspirational note — ‘You have a vote! It’s right there in your wallet!’ This moral imperative to vote in the market place was not accompanied by discussion, or even recognition of the skewed distribution of ‘votes’ (dollars) in consumer society. The valorisation of consumer sovereignty was also revealed in the emphasis on the range of goods, their convenience, and the assurance of the high quality provided.

The Bridgehead fair-trade catalogue, for example, reported that their ‘goals looking forward’ were to provide consumers with ‘more stores and more selection’. Traditional development goals — eliminating poverty, reducing technological dependence and so forth — are apparently self-evident to Bridgehead catalogue shoppers. TransFair USA stressed that before consumers will buy fairly traded coffee, they have to be shown that there is ‘no compromise in product quality’, and ‘easy availability, that is, no trips to special stores’.

While one might contend that ‘choice’ is a natural part of doing business in a market society, what is interesting in the case of fair trade, a self-declared alternative to exploitative trade relations, is how consumer sovereignty discourse is so thoroughly embraced. In fact, one of the stated goals of fair-trade organisations is to develop relationships with producers to help them adapt to the changing styles, trends, and preferences of First World consumers.

The overall effect is to create a powerful justification for a globalised world where a small elite has the right to choose between the best products that the world’s cultures have to offer. This elite also has the right to change its mind when certain trends and goods become passé. This world is not presented as objectionable, but is ironically given a veneer of morality since ‘choices’ are made in the name of fair trade and development. Although the rhetoric of consumer sovereignty is a realistic sales strategy, it is troublesome at a deeper level.

This emphasis on choice obscures the production side of the commodity equation, and the associated inequalities. Although the very idea of a fair-trade product draws the consumers’ eye to the notion of unfair global production processes, it is possible that most people who buy these products absorb very little information about the production process, perhaps only a short paragraph on the side of a bag of coffee.

The producers of the beautiful, handcrafted items are shown in only a few places in the Bridgehead catalogue, and these depictions are designed to produce minimal anxiety and maximum satisfaction for the consumer choosing between hundreds of products.

The emphasis on the extreme range of choices available to consumers also obscures the paucity of choices available to producers, who are often driven to produce handicrafts when they are forced off their land. It is assumed that the choice for producers is to either remain impoverished, or produce goods for the fair-trade market. Local self-sufficiency, shortening food links, or de-linking from the global economy are not presented as viable choices. The imperative is to produce as quickly and efficiently as possible.

An ideal of consumer-sovereignty naturalised for North American consumers also presents a narrow notion of choice available to would-be citizens. Political action is reduced to a choice between doing nothing, and buying a product. The realm of political action is confined to the market place. The primary choice for potential consumers is between brands. Absent here is the choice of not buying, or engaging in other types of political action. Although they might give the consumer the moral satisfaction of helping a women’s pottery co-operative in India, these purchases do not challenge the practices, or relative power of the high consumption lifestyle.

The greatest ideological abuse of the notion of ‘choice’ is when it obscures the persistence of social inequality. In consumer cultures choice is typically depicted as a great social equaliser, destroying group boundaries and creating a world where everyone has a ‘vote’. The language of ‘mutual-respect’ between ‘equal trading partners’ used in the fair-trade literature has a similar effect, blending together the sharp economic and social differences between the producers and consumers of the products.

Besides obscuring producer–consumer power differentials, the inequality amongst North American consumers is also hidden from view. The commonly used phrase, ‘as consumers, we can make a difference’, paints a picture of a homogenous mass of equal participants in the market place. The ability to pay the fair-trade premium price becomes a matter of individual willpower and morality, instead of the socio-economic issue that it is for less wealthy North American consumers.

This leads us to another problem with the choice metaphor — it has no way of distinguishing degrees of control over choices. The consumer sovereignty ideal presents consumers as either free choosers, or manipulated dupes — not a very sophisticated portrayal of the subtle moral issues involved in political action. What is not recognised within this simplistic perspective are gradations and forms of autonomous choice, such as the language of citizenship and collective action, an issue to which I will now turn.

Lifestyle politics and a diminished public sphere: from boycott to ‘buycott’

Fair-trade literature is also characterised by the absence of reference to discussions of politics, economics, capitalism, and democracy. Like the discourse of the New Right, fair-trade discourse appears to accept the focus on consumer identities over political and public identities as natural and inevitable. The potential of the public sphere as an arena of critical reflection is thus minimised, as public communication is predominantly organised around market transactions.

Calls to ‘action’ frequently begin with phrases like the following: ‘As consumers, our purchasing choices also have a global impact’. On the 10,000 Villages home page, seven suggestions of ‘how you can help’ are listed. Aside from prayer, the suggestions revolve entirely around the retail experience.

This is a telling example of the de-politicisation of global inequality, and a fairly typical depiction of political action in the fair-trade literature. When consumers are urged to lobby their government, it is to promote the use of fair-trade coffee in the government coffee shops — not to lobby for political changes that would make Southern producers less vulnerable like lobbying for the reduction of Third World debt or fighting corporate rights agreements like the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, or to make North American governments more accountable to their citizens.

Nevertheless, most of the fair-trade literature is highly ambitious about the scope of change that would occur through fair trade, and about the power of lifestyle politics.

Small changes are presented as making a big difference. TransFair USA states this very specifically, supporting a shift in focus from ‘boycotts’ to ‘buycotts’.

While the focus on individual choice here is clearly a sensible sales pitch, it also tends to minimise the accountability of the state and corporations for the public good. The individual is encouraged to take responsibility for global injustice, but in most cases action is limited to purchasing fair-trade products. Fair trade assuages your conscience, and makes your house appear more hip and worldly. Individual lifestyle politics is key. Forget about challenging larger organisations like governments and corporations. Justice can fit into your daily lifestyle.

The danger here is that fair trade is ripe for corporate co-optation of the public’s genuine desire to see the end of sweatshop labour and other exploitative practices. Nike’s ‘no-harm’ clothing campaign is simply one of the more public, sophisticated variants on this theme. I first became aware of the NO HARM CLOTHING slogan on a trip to Los Angeles in July 1999 where it was used to promote the Beverly Hills Nike World super-store. Reading the fine print beneath the ‘No-Harm’ clothing, however, seemed to indicate only that the clothing would not harm the person wearing it.

Alternatively, fair trade can simply become a superficial brush with the exotic ‘Other’. In the inside of the Bridgehead catalogue, the Managing Director calls on the viewer to take part in a neo-colonial mail-order experience: ‘We invite you to bring the world home’. Although appeals to capture the exotic are not always this literal, the fair-trade goods themselves contain important messages about global inequalities and North American desires to possess a piece of the exotic Other.

What message, for example, is conveyed by owning a hand-dyed indigo duvet cover from India? What lies behind the desire for a ‘Kathmandu Carpet’ from Nepal, or a set of ‘wonderfully ornate maracas’ from Peru? Clearly the consumption of these goods has many meanings, including simple appreciation for an aesthetically pleasing handicraft. However, it also seems clear that beneath the attractive veneer of fair-trade chic there continues a long Western tradition of placing the Other safely within one’s reach, while at the same time maintaining the extreme power differential separating core consumers from peripheral producers.

All of this leads to unanswered questions about the political efficacy of the lifestyle politics of consumerism. When I go to a Third World craft store and buy a Zapatista doll (made by Guatemalans in Mexico city) for US$8.50, what am I really contributing to the plight of impoverished campesinos in Southern Mexico? If anything, the availability of such items creates a false sense of solidarity with life or death struggles, and allows the analytical gaze to wander away from the ways in which my lifestyle and my citizenship are connected to the Zapatista struggles. The North American Free Trade Agreement, the inter-continental arms trade, the pillage of Chiapanecan resources, the degradation of indigenous rights across North America — these important issues are nowhere to be found when I take my Zapatista doll and credit card up to the cash register.

This brings us to a third and final theme of this article — the balance between education and normalisation in fair-trade discourse.

Normalising over-consumption and underdevelopment

Fair-trade discourse offers an important opportunity for education about the complex factors underlying underdevelopment. Although attempts at development education are a key part of fair-trade discourse, the strange juxtaposition of core choice and peripheral poverty works to normalise over-consumption and underdevelopment, stifling the possibilities for critical public discussion on these issues.

Nowhere is this juxtaposition of over-consumption and underdevelopment more evident than in the glossy pages of the Bridgehead fair-trade catalogue. Although Bridgehead will send more details of their projects on request, their major marketing tool is the catalogue. The catalogue is beautifully produced on glossy paper with stunning photographs, and an extensive array of goods. Bridgehead wants to impress upon potential customers the importance of ethical consumption, but it does not want to scare them off either. Your purchases are intended to promote ‘development’, yet the catalogue images do not inspire any sense of the need for urgent action to combat global inequality, the impoverishment of the Fourth World, or over-development in North America. Instead, these images are designed to promote a sense of urgency about buying something.

Besides this visual normalisation, the fair-trade concept itself tends to normalise and give moral legitimacy to the idea that some populations should produce products according to the desires and whims of other populations. The whole notion of what is ‘fair’ is revealing. The meaning of ‘fair’ for Alternative Trade Organisations ranges from ‘mutual respect’, to a ‘living wage’, to the country’s ‘minimum wage’. Nowhere is it suggested that producers should ideally be paid at a level befitting the labour of North American consumers, and nowhere is it suggested that the core consumer should be consuming at the level befitting the producers of the goods. So ‘fair’ in the discourse seems not to imply a global democracy of citizens with equal economic and political rights, but a global trading system of inequality, albeit with a more human face. The goal of fair trade remains confined to helping the poor through fair-trade practices — all without addressing the living conditions of the world’s elite.

Although the fair-trade organisations vary in their presentation of global inequality, the discourse tends to present a sugar-coated liberal vision where everyone has an equal voice, and where global citizenship has already been achieved. Fair trade is a development solution where everybody wins: the First World consumer gets a hand-crafted item along with a clear-conscience, while the producers get an improved standard of living. TransFair USA describes the benefits of fair trade as follows: ‘In a global village, we prosper as our less fortunate neighbors prosper’. Nations become neighbours, and we accept that some nations (‘neighbours’) are naturally more fortunate than others. The causes underlying global inequality, such as imperialism, neo-imperialism, trade advantages and the debt crisis, disappear in this quaint metaphor.

The notion that natural resources are limited, and that the First World neighbours gobble up a disproportionate share of the global commons, is also implicitly accepted.

Respect, and even sustainable development, can be produced with a simple purchase as an equally empowered ‘citizen of the world’. Even though handicraft production is often one of the last options available to landless peasants in dire need of land reform, the Fair Trade Federation defends the production of non-essential items as an important part of developing fair-trade relations:

Clothing, utensils, bowls, baskets, and ritual items are windows into the heart of a culture. As we embrace becoming citizens of the world, our appreciation for cultures other than our own is magnified.

The hopeful vision of global multiculturalism supports diversity with little recognition of inequality. Global consumers perhaps, but not global citizens with equal economic resources or political rights.

This is not to say that efforts at education are not made by fair-trade organisations. Some organisations, such as Equal Exchange, provide a wide variety of informative articles on their web site and in their Java Jive newsletter. In contrast to the glossy images of their catalogues, Bridgehead also produces a photocopied newsletter, Bean Around the Block, which includes inspiring quotations on political action, and even a call for political action protesting militarisation in Chiapas.

But most fair-trade education efforts reflect the contradictions I outlined above: an emphasis on consumer sovereignty, and a focus on fair trade as the most important solution to global inequality. Consumers are to be educated to consume ‘differently’; there is no mention of encouraging consumers to consume less, or to engage in the world as citizens. Education is optional, and ultimately subservient to the goal of consumption.

Opportunities and the public sphere

At the same time as these contradictions emerge, it is important to emphasise that no discourse is homogeneous. The separation between citizens and consumers is not rigid or absolute. There are hopeful instances where the issues behind fair trade are effectively politicised as public issues rather than purely private, lifestyle issues, giving rise to the possibility of an expanded, more informed public sphere.

Some groups, for instance, are taking up the project of radical education in a more profound way, such as the ‘10 days for global justice campaign’ in Canada. Because the organisers are a broad, ecumenical group and not an alternative trade organisation, the goal to educate citizens about development issues remains central and primary, while the lifestyle issues surrounding fair-trade products are presented as a partial solution. One education tool, a page of four post-cards, highlights the possibilities for addressing consumption issues in a more politicised fashion. One post-card is addressed to the Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs, and calls for an end to sweat-shop conditions. Another card is addressed to ‘myself and my household’, calling on the reader to avoid excessive consumption and to challenge the Canadian government to protect workers’ rights at home and around the world.

Another promising instance of fair trade in the public sphere was the recent resolution by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to declare 8 May as Fair Trade Day in that city. Not only did the resolution declare the city’s opposition to ‘unregulated economic globalisation in its current state’, but it also made a commitment to support ‘fair trade, socially responsible investment, and sustainable and equitable economic development’. In contrast to the emerging globalism, which gives corporations universal rights of entry and access to global markets, the San Francisco resolution reasserted the rights of citizen bodies to set public priorities. To do this, the resolution relied on the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution which allows public entities to ‘place restrictions on the use of public funds’. The fair-trade issue in this case was taken on by a level of government, and transcended the scope of individual shopping decisions.

Another example of positive correlation between fair trade and a democratic public sphere is found in the International Federation for Alternative Trade (IFAT). IFAT holds biennial conferences for producers and alternative trade organisations to exchange information and viewpoints in a non-commodified context. This venue has hosted important debates on what qualifies as fair trade, creating fair-trade criteria for coffee, and supporting debates around criteria for other products. Instead of working to destroy the competition, alternative trade organisations commit to an alternative co-operative ethic of business based on maximising benefits to producers.

Although these organisations are still minor players in the scheme of global trading, businesses able to defy conventional logic and combine social values with viable business ventures can provide a powerful moral counter-point to the dominant logic of neo-liberalism.

Conclusion: potential and pitfalls of the shopping strategy

Consumer-solidarity strategies based on alternative principles like fair trade have the potential to both challenge and accommodate the dominant ideology and practices of consumerism and neo-liberal globalisation. Fair-trade discourse may also undermine commodity fetishism by forcing consumers to consider factors of production usually shrouded from view. Consideration of production can lead to a questioning of inequitable labour relations, the sustainability of core consumer practices, and can encourage a reorientation away from consumerism and towards socially engaged citizenship.

At the same time, the fair-trade discourse continues within a long-standing mode of regulation within advanced capitalism, and does not perfectly fulfil the criteria for a counter-politics based around collective action outlined above. The discourse of fair trade tends to rely on individualistic notions of choice and consumer sovereignty, obscures the structural linkages between core and periphery in a globalised economy, and belies the collective environmental implications of individual free choice in the market place. Because of its unwillingness to critically assess the consumerism of its customers, fair-trade discourse supports a liberal vision of difference without a serious discussion of inequality, or the emotional and intellectual barriers to sustainability.

Building alternative identities derived from conscientious consumption may be a more realistic strategy than expecting collective identities of citizenship to spontaneously emerge from thin air. Although there is no inevitable transition, conscientious consumption could serve as a conduit to a broader notion of citizenship, where an obsessive focus on individual ‘choice’, is replaced, or at least supplemented with a broader notion of community, sustainability, justice, and democracy.

Josée Johnston is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. This article is an excerpt from a chapter in the book Protest and Globalisation: Prospects for Transnational Solidarity, James Goodman (ed.), to be published in Sydney in February–March 2001 by Pluto Press

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