Creating Alternatives: The ESF, anti-neo-liberalism and fair trade

By Jo Littler
1st December 2002

Fair trade is something I've been interested in for quite a while now. I buy it 'when I can' (i.e. when it's convenient or when I remember); I have a subscription to Ethical Consumer (and sometimes I even get around to reading it); and I'm interested in how this practice relates to academic theories about contemporary consumer culture. Obviously like most people who have ever bought a fair trade product I buy it because it offers a way to be a consumer without exploiting the people who produce or make the stuff in question. At the same time it brings up a whole panoply of questions. Isn't fair trade a strategy of limited and privileged use amongst Western consumers, as it is only the middle classes who can afford it? Is it condemned to permanently narrow niche market status, with companies like Starbucks holding up their one fairly traded product as a marker of their social conscience whilst they perpetuate inequalities and exploitation through their regular range? Who decides what 'a decent wage' really is? How much of fair trade is encouraging co-operative trading and how much is descends from a quasi-imperial, missionary ethos of charity? When is privileged liberal questioning and whinging useful and when isn't it?

At the European Social Forum in Florence a session entitled Another economy is possible! helped me think more about these issues and to learn more about projects that were attempting to deal with them on the ground. It is worth pointing out that as the event was so massive, and the sessions ran concurrently, it would have been possible to attend some very different versions of the thing called the European Social Forum. In doing what it said it would do on its (equally exchanged) tin, Another Economy is Possible! was a good catalyst for getting re-enthused about the possibilities for alternative trade. Held in a huge, windy building crammed with people listening to different languages on headphones, as volunteers translated in the booths nearby and frantically gestured towards the excited speakers to slow down, it was run in conjunction with a range of five other talks over the three days. Most of these five sessions were good although there was the odd embarrassing moment. One was listening to Zac Goldsmith, who runs The Ecologist (and who is Jemima's brother) talk about how wonderful the time before industrial capitalism was. Yes, probably feudal society probably was really great - if you happened to be a Lord. It was embarrassing that this most backward-looking of narratives figuring the Middle Ages as a utopia to be reached for came from Britain.

The speakers at the session on fair trade mainly came from existing projects around Europe. Between them they discussed histories of co-operativism, current projects and the scope for expanding fair trade's reach. From the start the debate took co-operativism and fair trade as synonymous: that they were inseperable terms almost went without saying. This was in tune with the broader agenda of the forum to not just be 'anti-capitalist' but to consider alternatives to neo-liberalism and to build bridges, networks and hyperlinks between them. Madeline Hersent, for example, from Alliance 21, a network bringing together groups that seek to create more equal global interdependencies, spoke of prioritising ways of 'encouraging European consumption in solidarity with the rest of the world' alongside global citizenship and human rights.

At Another Economy is Possible! it was pointed out that Europe takes the global lead in the consumption of fair trade products. Regulatory standards differ from country to country - in Britain it is the Fairtrade Foundation that sets standards -with the umbrella organisations ILAT (the International Federation for Alternative Trade) and FLO (Fair Trade Labelling International) providing networks between them. These organisations are working on providing consistency between international definitions of what constitutes a fair trade product, and for basic foodstuffs a new international fairtrade mark is currently being phased in. Producers exercising control over the means of production is a fundamental principle of fair trade organisations, as are ensuring long-term contracts, the rights to organise trade unions, and to agree fixed a purchase price that cannot fluctuate with the global casino of our international trading markets. (Ransom, 2001: 25)

There are many developments happening around the fair trade products which can be bought in European markets. Affiliations between fair trade and organic food are becoming stronger, partly because they can attract similar consumers, and partly because of pressure from producers. It was, for example, pesticides sprayed from a plane that made 10,000 workers sterile in Costa Rica. Such dangers are leading more and more producers in the South to produce organically.

At the ESF seminar, the most useful talk from my point of view about changes to the European consumption of fair trade was given by Alberto Zoratti, who works for an Italian based chain of fair trade shops, Bottega del Mondo. Describing these shops as 'sites where we get in touch with the contradictions of neo-liberalism', Zoratti argued that the challenge for fair trade was to think about the strategies of how it might move beyond its very narrowly defined niche and open up new markets. He cited the example of organic food, whose market had been similarly small to that of fair trade, but which had successfully managed to expand its popularity because it had become linked in the consuming public's mind in opposition to GM food and to the risks of long-term pesticide poisoning. It was a good example of how the size of a niche market (as all good corporations know) is not pre-determined but can change through branding, through social events, through discourse.

One way to extend such an argument is to argue that fair trade also needs to develop an image of what it is arguing against. At the moment, much fair trade imagery mainly depicts happy workers. This approach obviously has strengths. It depicts the producers rather than reifying their product. It highlights the benefits of progressive production. As such it makes a great deal of people buy it. However, at its worst, some such imagery can be read as depicting the relations of quasi-imperialistic charity. An additional problem in terms of promotional power is that the very language of fair trade can be resonant of the mild and middle-class. Whilst the loyal mild and middle-class consumers should not be ignored or marginalised, there are other people out there who are ready to buy for different reasons too. It is useful to imagine the range of additional allegiances that could be made by constructing or emphasising different meanings for fair trade other than those that are currently paramount.

In other words, we need to find ways to help fair trade movements and the anti-capitialist or anti neo-liberal movements to link up. It might be time for some fair trade products to promote some of their products using less images that connote charity and more of the imagery of an alternative to corrupt social and economic systems. In other words, as well as being able to buy products that seem to be 'extra nice' to people, I would like to see products that are clear about what they are an alternative to; to see, for example, products that are promoted and labelled as 'exploitation-free food'.

In The Unmanageable Consumer, a book unravelling the various traditions and theories within which consumers have been positioned and understood, Yiannis Gabriel and Tim Lang provided a historical perspective on consumer activism. They schematise it into four main different stages or 'waves'. These are: co-operative consumers; 'value for money' consumers (as represented by Which?); Naderism (after Ralph Nader's early legal work on the Project for Corporate Responsibility from the 1960s, representing little Davids against the Goliaths of big corporations); and alternative consumerism (the fair trade and green consumption that emerged out of the Reagan and Thatcher years). Now, there is huge potential for a fifth wave, a coalition between anti-neo-liberal and direct action protestors who are reading No Logo and the facilitators and producers of fair trade produce.

The conditions for this kind of expansion are increasingly fertile. It is what Jose Bove managed to do in one particular way so successfully in France. He articulated the concerns of different interest groups: by linking French farmer's co-operatives with the anti-McDonald's protesters, the interests of Indian farmers fighting GMO and middle-class consumers concerned about the quality of their cheese and beef. In Britain, organisations fighting for change to international trading regulations (such as the World Development Movement) have begun to create stronger links with organisations facilitating fair trade produce (such as Traidcraft) through the umbrella organisation the Trade Justice Movement, launched in 2000. As Nawal el-Saadawi put it, "'Many countries in the South have started to raise the slogan 'fair trade not aid'. What the South needs in order to fight against poverty is a new international economic order based on justice, and on fair trade laws between countries, not 'aid' or 'charity'" (El-Saadawi, 1997: 13).

The ESF provided the grounds for extending ideas about the ways and the extent to which fair trade is marketed in the North. At times the sessions piled on the exciting ideas and encouraging examples; at other times they were frustratingly stuck in the same rut. I was a bit disappointed at the session on critical consumption, as it was basically a session telling us all how good fair trade was again and how we should buy it. The No Logo generation who were in the majority of those attending could have really done with some discussion of the more pervasive realities of commercial culture, social aspiration and desire, as well as a simple celebration of the more progressive realities of fair trade cultures. (Although Naomi Klein was apparently in attendance at some point over the three days).

On a similar basis there needed to be more consideration of the challenges for fair trade beyond primary foodstuffs such as tea, honey or chocolate. It is very difficult to find items that contain multiple components, which go through many production stages, and which have been fairly traded. Many European co-operatives produce goods that are fairly produced at one stage of the process: the challenge would be to extend this, from the co-operative boot factory back to the places where the rubber for the soles was bought. However, many initiatives seeking to extend the fairness do exist. The Clean Clothes campaign is attempting to develop a kite marked range, and the British campaigning organisation Tourism Concern is campaigning for fair trade in tourism; whilst a fully fair-traded holiday product is some way off, many stages in the process have been achieved. The 'fair trade' label should mean that the object has been fairly produced throughout its construction as well as fairly traded at the point of exchange. The rhetorical power of this expression holds enormous potential to facilitate understanding of what it means to have an equal and non-exploitative system of labour. It is a simple concept to grasp and needs to be extended and to spread to other goods. Why shouldn't we have fair trade jeans? Computers? Even, as a friend said to me, cigarettes?

And what about the issue of whether fair-trade is only the purchase of a certain type of middle-class consumer? Well, fair trade does not necessarily have to be the provenance of a certain breed of middle-class consumer for all time. There are many ways of reaching new consumer groups through particular branding (as the highly successful Dubble chocolate bar marketed at kids has proved). As David Ransom points out, the price Northern consumers pay for basic fair trade foodstuffs has potential to drop further if more fair trade goods are sold. At the moment many Western/Northern consumers pay more for fair trade than for standard produce because the organisations are still of small or medium size and as such do not qualify for the import breaks granted to the corporations importing larger quantities of goods. Therefore, the more fair trade produce is bought, so the argument goes, the cheaper it will become. Similarly, the price of more complex consumer goods that are made through fair trade does not necessarily have to be out of the reach of the majority of consumers. The Clean Clothes campaign argues that, although longer-term issues would remain about parity, producing clothes in fairly traded circumstances would not necessarily mean a huge hike. It costs little to pay the producers a decent wage; it is the astronomical mark-up through the costs of branding that are the main drain on Northern consumers' pockets.

Whilst there was not enough discussion at the ESF about such challenges for fair trade, it did provide a hugely useful and encouraging insight into projects happening around Europe and beyond. And its more frustrating moments at least forced us into thinking critically about what is not addressed and what needs to be.

I would argue that there is a need to make the alliances and networks between direct-action activists and fair trade consumers stronger, and to think imaginatively of new connections between them. Both would benefit. Anti-capitalist movements need to make it clear that there are alternatives that are not only possible but happening; fair trade needs to move beyond its image of worthy, quasi-imperial patronage and adopt more urgency as an essential social good. In a world still riven with divisions and unequal connections between North and South, what better way to be 'open to the other' than to listen to what they need and to not collude in ripping them off? We need to find ways to develop such multiple alliances and redefinitions to make another economy not only possible, but probable.

Useful websites


Bové, José and Francois Dufour, The World is Not for Sale: Farmers Against Junk Food (Verso, 2001)

El Saadawi, Nadal 'Women and the Poor: The Challenge of Global Justice' in The Nawal El Saadawi Reader (Zed Books, 1997)

Gabriel, Yiannis and Tim Lang, The Unmanageable Consumer: Contemporary Consumption and its Fragmentations (Sage, 1995)

Klein, Naomi No Logo (Flamingo, 2000)

Ransom, David The No-Nonsense Guide to Fair Trade (Verso / New Internationalist, 2001)

Soares, Flavia and Nelson Dieh (co-ordinators) Ethical Consumption,Provisional version of the proposals booklets for the 21st Century,Alliance 21

'The Fair Trade Tourist', edition of Tourism in Focus, the magazine of TourismConcern, Autumn 2002

by Jo Littler