Academic journal article Human Organization

Fair Trade Consumption and the Limits to Solidarity

Academic journal article Human Organization

Fair Trade Consumption and the Limits to Solidarity

Article excerpt

Introduction

Elizabeth is a graduate student at the University of Kentucky who describes herself as a "label shopper" who reads labels thoroughly before purchasing products and pays close attentions to brands. While she will devote some time to reading labels for an ethical product's "back story" if it is displayed, she is admittedly more concerned with identifying food ingredients to ensure that they are vegan and do not contain chemicals or substitutes that she is not comfortable consuming. She explained that she wants to find products that work well for her lifestyle and budget rather than searching out items "that are trying to accomplish a goal in another community or region of the world." During an ethnographic "shopalong" at a large chain grocery store in Lexington, Kentucky, Elizabeth explained to the interviewer that she thinks there are three groups of shoppers, and she falls somewhere in the middle:

There's the people that don't care at all, there's the people who care a ton, and I, I'll do it when it's convenient, when it's right in front of me, when I know about it.... I do go to the Body Shop, and I buy very specific types of toiletry products just because of that, but as far as other shopping, clothes, food. I'll just kind of do it if it's obvious to me.... When it's grocery shopping, it's 'that needed to happen, I finished it. I've got all the stuff I need, the end.' But I do have a feeling of self-importance when I buy from the Body Shop because I know that everything I've gotten there is community trade or whatever. So, here [at the grocery store] even though I probably did purchase a couple of Fair Trade items, at least the coffee that I'm aware of, um, I don't feel like I'm doing something amazing because out of the $200 I spent, it was like $5.00 on Fair Trade to my knowledge.... I kind of feel like, because of what's available to me in this Kroger, I did alright. I did what I perceived to be the best I could.

Elizabeth's analysis illustrates several of the trends that we identified in our analysis of university students' understandings of Fair Trade and their shopping habits through an online survey of 185 University of Kentucky students and ethnographic shopalongs1 with 10 of the original survey participants. The shopalongs were designed to encourage participants to reflect upon their grocery shopping routines2 (the places, times, and products) as well as the concerns and constraints shaping their consumption "choices." The research revealed that while participants had a passing familiarity with the Fair Trade concept, a significant number were confused about the aims and operations of the Fair Trade market, and even those who supported Fair Trade in theory purchased certified products irregularly. Furthermore, while participants were often inspired by the things they learned about Fair Trade and related labels in their university classrooms or from friends, they remained uncertain about what Fair Trade is precisely trying to accomplish. In practice, there are three primary factors limiting participants' ability to consume in solidarity with Fair Trade producers: ( 1 ) the reluctance or inability to devote significant amounts of time to shopping and consumption-related research, (2) the influence of ingrained consumption habits, including those learned from their parents, and (3) the perceived lack of Fair Trade products in local stores.

One of the goals of this research was to gain a better understanding of student purchasing habits and views of Fair Trade in order to encourage a nascent ethical consumption movement on our campus of28,000 students. The University of Kentucky is the largest employer in Lexington (which has over 300,000 residents) with over 14,000 full-time employees. Therefore, an increase in Fair Trade purchasing options on campus and in nearby retail outlets would significantly impact not only the university's student population but also the community itself because of the large number of employees who would also learn about Fair Trade and have access to the products. …

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