Has the Medium (Roast) become the Message? – the ethics of marketing fair trade in the mainstream

Will Low and Eileen Davenport
Publication Date: 
This paper examines the ethics of marketing both fair trade products and the movement’s message of change, as fair trade shifts from a distribution system that relied on alternative distribution channels to one that is increasingly reliant on the commercial mainstream.
The marketing of fair trade through mainstream commercial distribution channels has been the major success and the major challenge for the fair trade movement over the past decade. This paper will be of interest to marketing professionals and “values-driven organisations”, providing a case study of how a seemingly highly successful brand marketing strategy may actually undermine the original ethical interest of a venture. First, we introduce the term “Clean-wash” to describe a range of ways in which marketing fair trade through mainstream distribution channels creates opportunities for commercial businesses to appropriate and regulate the terrain. Second, the paper illustrates how mainstream marketing of fair trade has shifted the message of fair trade from participation in an international programme of trade reform to one about “shopping for a better world”. Finally, the paper explores a number of innovations the movement is using that protects the integrity of the principles of fair trade and sells both products and the message of change. We term such innovations “the Alternative High Street”, where we see the merging of consumption with social action, and counter-pose them with the mainstream idea of ethical consumerism.