Buying into Fair Trade (2013) seeks to understand the ways conscientious consumers make sense of things

The concept of fair-trade coffee is among the most intellectually challenging and enjoyable-to-ponder concepts that I have come across in recent years.

I’ve addressed this topic in previous posts including the following ones, among others:

Truthiness, stage magic, and fair trade coffee

Is there a reason to boycott fair trade coffee after reading recent research reports? For me, answer is: No

Does Fairtrade certification benefit poor farmers? In Ethiopia and Uganda, the answer is No: study

This is a topic of such vastness that I could easily much time getting a sense of the scope of the discussion.

Given that I have several other projects on the go, in this blog post I will just list some of the books I’ve been currently looking at. With each book, I will include a blurb – which I’ve broken down into shorter paragraphs, in each case – that tells the story related to the study in question.

Many books about fair-trade coffee are available at the Toronto Public Library

Coffee and Community: Maya Farmers and Fair-Trade Markets (2011)

A blurb reads:

We are told that simply by sipping our morning cup of organic, fair-trade coffee we are encouraging environmentally friendly agricultural methods, community development, fair prices, and shortened commodity chains. But what is the reality for producers, intermediaries, and consumers?

This ethnographic analysis of fair-trade coffee analyzes the collective action and combined efforts of fair-trade network participants to construct a new economic reality. Focusing on La Voz Que Clama en el Desierto – a cooperative in San Juan la Laguna, Guatemala – and its relationships with coffee roasters, importers, and certifiers in the United States, Coffee and Community argues that while fair trade does benefit small coffee-farming communities, it is more flawed than advocates and scholars have acknowledged.

However, through detailed ethnographic fieldwork with the farmers and by following the product, fair trade can be understood and modified to be more equitable.

This book will be of interest to students and academics in anthropology, ethnology, Latin American studies, and labor studies, as well as economists, social scientists, policy makers, fair-trade advocates, and anyone interested in globalization and the realities of fair trade.

[End of blurb]

Fair Trade: Reform and Realities in the International Trading System (1993)

A blurb reads:

Free trade may well succeed in maximizing world income, but may at the same time result in a pattern of income distribution among countries that could be considered grossly “unfair.”

This challenge to the operation of free markets has long been leveled with respect to income distribution between agricultural and industrial activities, among social groups, and among individuals. What is efficient is not always considered fair.

The key lies in the definition of “fairness.” What seems fair to one person seems unfair to another, so political processes must define “fairness” and devise policies, such as the progressive income tax, that are thought to be fair but that no economist could defend.

So it is with this book, which tries to address the causes, course, and consequences of unfairness in international trade, generally between developed and developing countries and more specifically with respect to disadvantaged and exploited groups within developing countries.

Individual chapters purport to document this pattern of unfairness; the conclusion proposes some solutions – other than the traditional market-rigging approaches that have invariably failed.

These focus particularly on “alternative” trade patterns through organizations dedicated to fairness such as the author’s own firm, the Third World Trading Network (TWIN).

Ironically, free markets will decide whether these alternative channels survive. Recommended for undergraduate libraries only. I. Walter; New York University. Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.

[End of blurb]

Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World (Rev. Ed., 2010)

A blurb reads:

Uncommon Grounds tells the story of coffee from its discovery on a hill in ancient Abyssinia to the advent of Starbucks.

In this updated edition of the classic work, Mark Pendergrast reviews the dramatic changes in coffee culture over the past decade, from the disastrous “Coffee Crisis” that caused global prices to plummet to the rise of the Fair Trade movement and the “third-wave” of quality-obsessed coffee connoisseurs.

As the scope of coffee culture continues to expand, Uncommon Grounds remains more than ever a brilliantly entertaining guide to the currents of one of the world’s favorite beverages.

[End of blurb]

Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love (2012)

A blurb reads:

Consumers are told that when they put on an American Apparel t-shirt, leggings, jeans, gold bra, or other item, they look hot. Not only do they look good, but they can also feel good because they are helping US workers earn a decent wage (never mind that some of those female workers have accused their boss of sexual harassment).

And when shoppers put on a pair of Timberlands, they feel fashionable and as green as the pine forest they might trek through – that is, until they’re reminded that this green company is in the business of killing cows.

But surely even the pickiest, most organic, most politically correct buyers can feel virtuous about purchasing a tube of Tom’s toothpaste, right?

After all, with its natural ingredients that have never been tested on animals, this company has a forty-year history of being run by a nice couple from Maine . . . well, ahem, until it was recently bought out by Colgate.

It’s difficult to define what makes a company hip and also ethical, but some companies seem to have hit that magic bull’s-eye. In this age of consumer activism, pinpoint marketing, and immediate information, consumers demand everything from the coffee, computer, or toothpaste they buy.

They want an affordable, reliable product manufactured by a company that doesn’t pollute, saves energy, treats its workers well, and doesn’t hurt animals – oh, and that makes them feel cool when they use it. Companies would love to have that kind of reputation, and a handful seem to have achieved it.

But do they deserve their haloes? Can a company make a profit doing so? And how can consumers avoid being tricked by phony marketing?

In Ethical Chic, award-winning author Fran Hawthorne uses her business-investigative skills to analyze six favorites: Apple, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, American Apparel, Timberland, and Tom’s of Maine. She attends a Macworld conference and walks on the factory floors of American Apparel.

She visits the wooded headquarters of Timberland, speaks to consumers who drive thirty miles to get their pretzels and plantains from Trader Joe’s, and confronts the founders of Tom’s of Maine.

More than a how-to guide for daily dilemmas and ethical business practices, Ethical Chic is a blinders-off and nuanced look at the mixed bag of values on sale at companies that project a seemingly progressive image.

[End of blurb]

Fair Trade Coffee: The Prospects and Pitfalls of Market-Driven Social Justice (2007)

A blurb reads:

Over the past two decades, sales of fair trade coffee have grown significantly and the fair trade network has emerged as an important international development project. Activists and commentators have been quick to celebrate this sales growth, which has allowed socially just trade, labour, and environmental standards and practices to be extended to hundreds of thousands of small farmers and poor rural workers throughout the Global South.

While recent assessments of the fair trade network have focused on its impact on local poverty alleviation, however, the broader political-economic and historically rooted structures that frame it have been left largely unexamined.

In this study, Gavin Fridell argues that while local level analysis is important, examination of the impacts of broader structures on fair trade coffee networks, and vice versa, are of equal if not greater significance in determining their long-term developmental potential. Using case studies from Mexico and Canada, Fridell examines the fair trade coffee movement at both the global and local level, assessing its effectiveness and locating it within political and development theory.

In addition, Fridell provides in-depth historical analysis of fair trade coffee in the context of global trade, and compares it with a variety of postwar development projects within the coffee industry.

Timely, meticulously researched, and engagingly written, this study challenges many commonly held assumptions about the long-term prospects and pitfalls of the fair trade network’s market-driven strategy in the era of globalization.

[End of blurb]

Review of Fair Trade Coffee (2007)

As noted in a previous post, you can find a valuable review of the latter book, along with other ones, here.


A Huffington Post article, downloaded July 19, 2015, is entitled: The Myth of the Ethical Shopper. We’re still trying to eliminate sweatshops and child labor by buying right. But that’s not how the world works in 2015.

Also of interest: The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (2004).

A Jan. 29, 2016 CBC article is entitled: “Coffee cups: 3 months later, are they being recycled at Tim Hortons and Starbucks?”


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