Selling Coffee, or Selling Out?: Evaluating Different Ways to Analyze the Fair-Trade System



Consumers have been increasingly associating gourmet coffee with ethical questions in recent years, leading to a confusing array of claims by retailers about how coffee farmers are treated. Among these competing claims, fair trade stands out as the only system to have wide activist support. Is fair trade just another marketing claim? A consumption paradigm shift? Or a social movement? In this article, I review three potential interpretations of fair trade: as the partial introduction of gifting into a market context, as the commodification of new realms, and as a social movement. I conclude that seeing fair trade as gifting overdraws the difference between fair trade and other commerce, failing to take into account research that blurs the differences between gift and commodity and obscuring the considerable power inequalities in the system. It makes sense to see fair trade as the commodification of activism. And we can see the fair-trade system as a social movement with active participants and more passive supporters. Ultimately, we should not characterize the entire system as one phenomenon, but see it as articulating modes of social transformation. I conclude with a discussion of the moral connotations of each interpretation.