Buying Into Fair Trade: Culture, Morality, and Consumption

 

People do not buy things anymore simply on account of their utility, nor, for that matter, for the status symbols they provide. That much is clear. People buy things because they may provide experiences, because they may render social life meaningful. As Daniel Miller, Juliet Schor, and many others have pointed out, those who critique contemporary forms of consumption as a simple extension of the core logic of capitalism are likely to miss that important point. Yet once scholars acknowledge that things can provide valued experience, the question shifts from how might consumption not only become meaningful to how might consumption provide a path toward an ethical consciousness of capitalism, perhaps even political activism?

On the surface, sociologist Keith Brown’s Buying Into Fair Trade: Culture, Morality, and Consumption is an in-depth study of the consumer side of the fair trade market in and around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, his analysis distinguishes itself from a growing number of similar studies by exploring the many pathways to participation in fair trade. But it is also much more than that. The ethnography is richly textured by extensive ethnographic interviews, surveys, and participant observation. Brown’s theorization of consumption and social movements, likewise, is delicate and mostly relegated to the endnotes, so as not to interrupt the text’s superb readability. Consequently, Brown is not only able to flesh out the virtual figure of the “conscientious consumer” (an industry term signaling fair trade’s primary market niche), he also is able to distinguish between many different groups who each find their way, by one route or another, to fair trade. The focus on ethical or political conversion thus illuminates how certain consumers develop a taste for supporting strangers half a world away, how others become fair trade advocates or even activists (Chapters 2 and 3), how each learn to talk or think or appear to care about ethical issues (Chapter 5), and also how all make sense of the uneasy contradictions that exist between their expressed ideals, their everyday consumption habits, and the exigencies of political economic circumstance (Chapters 4 and 6).

One of the strengths of this book, I think, is its ability to avoid the insider talk about the various political dramas of fair trade, which is too common in the fair trade literature. While it is certainly important to know the differences between Equal Exchange and Fair Trade USA (formerly Transfair USA), and the latter’s break with the FLO Fairtrade mark in 2011, it is also important to understand fair trade as a product of larger transformations—of labor, of trade, and of consumption—in the latter half of the twentieth century. Brown’s text does this admirably. Without reducing them to vulgar economics, he illustrates the “ethical turn in markets,” as well as the development of new vocabularies like “green-washing,” “sweat-washing,” and “fair-washing” levied against corporations like Starbucks who only reform their problematic practices superficially in order to cultivate an ethical reputation or the appearance thereof. To that end, Brown links fair trade with a tradition of civic responsibility in the U.S., long expressed through consumption. He analyzes ethical consumption through the lens of the social construction, maintenance, and performance of moral identity. And he provides a compelling exegesis of abstract ideas like social class and distinction by investigating, for example, why some consumers cannot even fathom shopping at Walmart for its sordid labor history and yet will happily go to Target (which has basically the same business model).

Brown’s Buying into Fair Trade is a welcome addition to the quickly growing literature on fair trade. For scholars, the book provides a useful clarification (but not summarization) of the key issues of ethical consumption while at the same time opening up new avenues for research. For teachers, the book is extremely clear, well-written, and versatile. It appears to be designed for undergraduates of many different ability levels, and, depending on the focus, the book can be made to speak to themes in courses on consumption, identity, social movements, or even introductory courses in the social sciences. Brown’s Buying into Fair Trade is a thoughtful, articulate, critical, and compelling study of limitations of potentials of fair trade, ethical consumption, and the many forces that make certain kinds of consumers and activists in this day and age.

Josh Fisher, High Point University

Reviewed in this essay:

Brown, Keith R. Buying Into Fair Trade: Culture, Morality, and Consumption. New York: NYU Press, 2013. Read more at NYU Press.

 

About Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Binghamton University in the State University of New York system. He received his Ph.D. from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, specializing in medical anthropology and the social study of science and technology. He is author of the forthcoming book The Slumbering Masses (UMN Press), which focuses on sleep in American culture and its historical and contemporary relations to capitalism.

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