Evaluating Fair Trade Consumption: Politics, Defetishization, and Producer Participation

Sarah Lyon
Publication Date: 
This paper combines a critical review of the scholarly literature on fair trade with an analysis of data gathered during 19 months of ethnographic research conducted between 2001 and 2003 among the members of a Guatemalan fair trade coffee co-operative and fair trade coffee roasters and advocates in the US.
The paper explores three common claims made about fair trade consumption that: first, fair trade consumption emerges from the political choices and conscious reflexivity of Northern consumers; second, it defetishizes coffee by revealing the social and environmental conditions of the coffee production; and third, it forges equitable trade relationships between producers and consumers. While the research results demonstrate that there is some validity to each of the three claims, they also highlight two negative trends: the reinforcement of producer–consumer differences and low levels of farmer participation in fair trade networks beyond the realm of commodity production. In conclusion, the paper argues that overstating the exceptional nature of fair trade consumption weakens the market’s transformative potential. In order to nurture equitable trade partnerships fair trade must expand to accommodate a substantially higher degree of producer participation in administrative decision making and goal setting.