Fair Trade Coffee and Commodity Fetishism: The Limits of Market-Driven Social Justice

Gavin Fridell
Publication Date: 
This paper explores the claims made by various authors that the fair trade network provides an initial basis for a challenge to the commodification of goods under global capitalism.
Proponents of fair trade generally advance two essential arguments in this regard. First, they claim that fair trade reveals the social and environmental conditions under which goods are produced and brings producers and consumers together through ‘ethical consumerism,’ which challenges the commodification of goods into items with an independent life of their own. Second, they argue that fair trade affirms non-economic values of cooperation and solidarity which challenge the capitalist imperatives of competition, accumulation, and profit-maximisation. Drawing from cases in the fair trade coffee sector, these assertions are critically examined and it is argued that, while fair trade can provide a symbolic challenge to commodity fetishism, in the end this challenge is strictly limited by the power of global market imperatives and the network’s market-driven approach.