“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.

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