Fairtrade: commodifying an ethical relationship

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Monday saw me at a GWR seminar from Exeter over its impressive "access grid" (all rather Iain M Banks).  The topic was fairtrade and the presentation illuminated a number of issues around why schools (and universities, Bath amongst them) find it so compelling to see fairtrade as something to promote, rather than to examine critically.  The idea of fairtrade as global citizenship came across strongly:  buying fairtrade coffee / tea, for example, means that you're not really consuming a product but making a protest / voting / helping / mobilizing / establishing solidarity / creating common cause, etc, whilst pretending, to yourself at any rate, that this is a small step outside the capitalist economy.  Mostly an illusion, of course, as the speaker explained.   Rather than stepping away from consumption as fetish, this was its replacement by the commodificatioon of an ethical relationship.

I was struck by the compelling nature of the argument that fairtrade allows you to see yourself as going beyond a product to making a difference to a social system, and hence to people's well-being.  And I couldn't help but compare this to the organic movement which tries to do the same thing (stressing, often rather unconvincingly, the enhancement of personal health and well-being).  What organic farming might be better advised to do, of course, is to help you see yourself as going beyond the product to making a difference to ecosystems, and hence to the earth's well-being.  If it were to do that it'd likely have less trouble from advertising standards folk.

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