“Fair Trade Wants You!” The Neoliberal Politics of Conscious Consumption

By Kara Newhouse

“Fair trade is a hand up, not a handout.” I heard this distinction between charity and an economic exchange many times while doing anthropology research among fair trade advocates. With today marking World Fair Trade Day, it’s a good time to examine what fair trade is, and what it isn’t.

The Premise

The premise of “fair trade” is to create markets in the Global North for goods from the Global South, either through businesses that sell directly from the producers (usually handicrafts) or through third party commodity labeling.

Often when people hear about my research on this phenomenon, they ask, “So is it really fair?” This question assumes that “good/bad” labels can be accurately deployed to understand the world’s problems and remedies. The justness of fair trade on the production end of the exchange should be evaluated based on many factors, including the producers’ involvement in shaping what is considered “fair” trade. Other researchers are attempting such evaluations, and the results differ by region and product. Beyond assessing the “fairness” of this consumer movement, I am interested in the roots of fair trade’s appeal to people of the Global North. To understand that, I analyzed the marketing of fair trade goods and interviewed fair trade advocates.

The Assumptions

Ideas about the need for improvement and “progress” in Other (non-Western) poor places form the ideological backdrop of fair trade. While the term itself connotes a problem in the dominant trade system, the overall discourse relies on a more general assumption of disparity throughout the world. Promotional materials acknowledge the unacceptability of poverty primarily in places far from where the consumer lives. In slogans like “Shop to make a difference” or “Shop for peace and justice,” the fact that poverty is the object of the action of “making a difference” goes without saying.

Underscoring this assumption, in Fair Trade: A Beginner’s Guide, Jacqueline DeCarlo (2007:5) says of the disparity between rich and poor countries:

I am not going to deconstruct history and blame inequality on colonialism or corruption or even capitalism. I am merely going to point out what you probably already suspect: this type of disparity is not acceptable.”

The Consumers

Relying on an understanding of a world divided between “haves” and “have-nots,” fair trade offers an alternative mode of consumption within the global economic system. People who have recognized their existence as the “haves” of the world and experienced the accompanying moral crisis can thus comprehend the world again by knowing that a method exists to bring the have-nots up to the living standards of the Global North.

The fair trade remedy locates the power to transform economic inequality in the purchasing capacities of individual consumers, often using first-person directives to suggest that consumers are part of a social movement. I call this approach the autonomization of social change. For instance, the headline of the Fair Trade Resource Network website last year declared, “WORLD FAIR TRADE DAY WANTS YOU!” It encouraged “you” to “promote Fair Trade and campaign for trade justice together with farmers and artisans around the world.”

In fair trade circles, origin stories of particular Northerners who initiated fair trade projects are used to demonstrate the significance of individuals’ actions to economic equality. DeCarlo, for instance, details the history of Ten Thousand Villages through the efforts of a Mennonite woman named Edna Byler bringing crafts back from Puerto Rico and selling them at her local sewing circle in 1946. DeCarlo explains the importance of this woman’s story as follows:

Like many Fair Trade visionaries and practitioners, Byler volunteered her time and gave her money on behalf of her producer partners…I believe that the single-minded, generous, and visionary commitment of individuals like Byler—whether they be leaders of non-governmental organizations, small business owners, development practitioners, or self-motivated volunteers—is what has made the evolution of Fair Trade possible and its future optimistic.” [2007:65-67]

I heard a similar tale of one woman discovering a need for external market access among Mayan women, taking a suitcase full of woven items to the United States, and selling the contents locally at the fair trade organization (FTO) where I conducted my case study. Although more in-depth narratives can be found in which other actors are involved , the emphasis that readers and listeners place on the lone initiator when reformulating these stories suggests the importance that other Northerners find in understanding what individuals can do.

The individualization in fair trade origin stories suggests to readers/listeners that making fair trade purchases is a reproducible way for consumers to create “the kind of world they want to live in” (DeCarlo 2007:5). Fair trade thus creates a neoliberal response to economic inequality both in the responsibility it places on individual citizens and by finding solutions in the marketplace.

The Producers

A key feature of fair trade discourse is the telling of producers’ stories. At fair trade stores, crafts are labeled with their country of origin, and small display cards describe the items’ production process and traditional uses. The following are examples from two different fair trade stores:

These beautifully crafted recycled aluminum boxes are made by fair trade artisans in Bali. Traditionally, they were used to bring gifts and offerings to weddings, house warmings and other ceremonies.”

Global Mamas is a non-profit assisting small, women-owned businesses in Ghana. Ghana is situated on the Gold Coast of West Africa, where the vast majority of women earn less than $2 per day. By purchasing this product you are offering sustainable livelihoods to women in Africa.

Proceeds go directly to the women entrepreneurs and the nonprofit programs that assist them with business development. Join the community of Global Mamas who care about the world and the future.”

Formulaic profiles such as these convey the idea that before working in fair trade, the artisans were disadvantaged; yet the descriptions fail to contextualize the groups’ economic needs in terms of the political and historical conditions of the communities.

To give another example, FTOs that sell Guatemalan weavings commonly cite two explanations for the economic neediness of Mayan weavers. The first explanation is simply that textile markets within Guatemala are saturated. The second explanation identifies the weavers as widows, referring to the “violence that plagued Guatemala throughout the 1980s” as the cause of their widowhood.

These producer stories leave deeper questions unanswered, such as: Why are so many women turning to their traditional weaving skills as a way to make money? Why are there no jobs available for men? In cases where the women are widows, why were their husbands killed, and by whom? And why are Mayan people in particular in such dire financial situations?

By describing the producers mainly through demographic models—as “impoverished,” “marginalized,” and “disenfranchised”—fair trade materials and advocates themselves create depoliticized and acontextual identities for fair trade’s partners from the Global South.


“Fair trade” as a consumer movement or development tool thus differs from a political-economic understanding of what constitutes fair trade. Fair trade organizations and advocates have a specifically articulated understanding of how economic justice can be approached in their work, but their discourse does not produce ways of thinking about this issue, or other issues in producers’ communities, at a structural level.

For instance, I asked the staff members at a fair trade non-profit business in the U.S. how they defined “economic justice,” a phrase which they commonly used when describing their mission. In their responses, they mentioned various factors involved in a general approach to achieving economic justice. Importantly, they said, this approach should be “integrated” by including capacity-building programs and an emphasis on education. Although they mentioned the unequal distribution of wealth globally and in Guatemala, they did not discuss the responsibility of governments or financial institutions in the picture of economic justice. This omission stands in stark contrast to the enormous emphasis on individual consumer responsibility in fair trade discourse.

The effect of this de-politicization is a failure to meet the educational goal described in the Fair Trade Federation’s principles, which says:

Fair Trade encourages an understanding by all participants of their role in world trade. Members actively raise awareness about Fair Trade and the possibility of greater justice in the global economic system.”

Understanding our role in the international trade system that wreaks havoc on livelihoods around the world goes beyond the price we paid for coffee in the morning. As a neoliberal project, though, fair trade relies on the subjectivities of Northern consumers motivated by generalized poverty to compel action in the responsibilities of conscious consumerism. Politicizing and historicizing the poverty experienced by Southern producers, by contrast, might invoke responsibility for change at different levels and demand forms of social action in ways other than through the market.

Hands Extended

The ability of the fair trade system to foster in North Americans and Europeans strong feelings of connection to marginalized people around the world should not be overlooked. The FTO where I conducted my research considers these relationships an important element of their mission. They rely on a network of 160 volunteers to host sales at their homes, churches, and schools. The fact remains, however, that even as a “hand up” rather than “handout,” these relationships seek transformation in a unidirectional way. As Bourdieu (2004:272) puts it, “being born in a social world, we accept a whole range of postulates, axioms, which go without saying and require no inculcating.” In the social world of fair trade advocates and consumers, the axioms which go without saying are that some people (Southerners) are poor, and some other people (Northerners) can exercise power to change that.

For Northerners it’s easy to view material differences in the world’s populations and count ourselves “lucky.” A more discerning look at the psychological issues, divisive social relationships, and environmental degradation plaguing countries like the U.S. should indicate that historical success at accumulating wealth has not left our people spiritually better off than anyone else. The hand we extend should not just be one that will enable farmers and artisans of the Global South to live like us—whether through donations or economic exchange—but a hand that will hold another hand and walk together in search of a world that is different from what any of us currently knows.

Kara Newhouse is a rogue anthropologist writing from the West Bank, where she teaches art and storytelling to Palestinian youth.

5 thoughts on ““Fair Trade Wants You!” The Neoliberal Politics of Conscious Consumption”

  1. I read your post with interest, but I really don’t get what you are trying to say.
    You suggest that Fair Trade proponents create “depoliticized and acontextual identities” for the producers in the global south. You don’t expand on that suggestion by explaining why, if that is indeed the case, it is an issue.
    As the co-owner of a Fair Trade store, I am very clear that our focus is on our mission of empowerment; helping people to help themselves. Ours is not a political stance, nor should it be. We just feel compelled to to extend our arm to those arms reaching from the many people worldwide (including here in the US).
    Please clarify what your issue is with that.
    Thank you

  2. Thanks for your question. As I noted in the section “Misrecognition,” education on the injustices of global trade is a stated goal of the fair trade movement. My argument is that making widespread change in the poverty of so-called Third World countries will not happen only by re-directing consumer dollars. Poverty is not a matter of people being unable to “help themselves” because of personal issues. Political structures and institutions (e.g. free trade agreements with Mexico or discrimination again Mayans in Guatemala) systematically prevent people from being able to sustain livelihoods, and therefore, political change is necessary to make a real difference. Without contextualizing the poverty experienced by fair trade producers, it becomes impossible to think of solutions that address the root causes.

    I am not condemning the fair trade system as a whole, nor you and your store, but pointing out the complexities of the idea that we can discover singular, large-scale solutions to multifaceted problems. On the first level, artisans and farmers can obviously benefit from increased income, but on a structural level, where does “empowerment” leave them when, for example, the global economy crashes and First-World consumers are not making any purchases, fair trade or otherwise?

  3. Excellent call for our desperate need of context. There are so many well-meaning organizations, individuals, and mindsets…but it is vital to understand how efforts are situated within the larger system, so that efforts do not simply reinforce the very issues they are trying to work against. I appreciate your speaking to that. I just wish such criticisms and active thoughts don’t have to come only from anthropologists or others considered “rogue”…hopefully one day your efforts will mean you no longer would be rogue given the increase in sheer number of others who are working in similar veins…

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