The University and the Moral Imperative of Fair Trade Coffee

Gavin Fridell
Publication Date: 
This paper examines the relationship between the university and fair trade coffee campaigns in North America.
In recent years, fair trade coffee sales internationally have increased substantially but have still not grown large enough to meet the needs of fair trade producers in the South. In consequence, fair trade activists have sought to expand the market by pressuring public institutions to adopt fair trade purchasing policies. In North America, the university has emerged as a central focus of fair trade coffee campaigns. Thus far, university administrators have been reluctant to support fair trade. This paper explores this reluctance and asserts that the university has a moral responsibility to support fair trade. However, it also argues that the potential exists for administrators to employ fair trade as an ethical fig leaf to mask the growing corporatization of the university under the weight of neoliberal reforms. This has become a common strategy of many neoliberal institutions in the North. Contrary to the assumptions of much of the emerging literature, it cannot be assumed that the impact of fair trade will necessarily be beneficial in the North unless activists work to ensure fair trade does not become employed as an ethical fig leaf.