Vol. 12, No. 2, May 2011

The Promise and Contradictions of Ethical Consumerism

Nicki Lisa Cole

I was enrolled in a graduate seminar focused on the sociology of knowledge, and we were in the midst of reading Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978). I had been thinking a lot about the role of European travel narratives crafted during the colonial era in formulating frameworks of difference, particularly racial difference. As I read the text on the coffee packaging that described the producers and their communities, and regarded the images presented with the text, it occurred to me that I was reading a contemporary (neo)colonial travel narrative. This experience piqued my interest enough that I conducted a focused content analysis of packaging and pamphlets that I found in the coffeehouses around Santa Barbara. One of the key findings of this brief study was the deployment of a discourse of ethics in framing the relationship between the coffee company, the consumer, and producers, for much of what I found around me was coffee coded as “Fair Trade” or “socially responsible.” Thus began the research of my dissertation, titled, “‘You’re not just buying coffee’: Ethical consumerism in the global age.”

I had been aware of the concept of “fair trade” since the early 2000s, and had supported it through coffee and other purchases. From 2002 to 2004 I worked across the street from a 10,000 Villages store where I regularly purchased gifts. I remember feeling good about shopping there, and proudly shared with the recipients the information provided about the producers of the goods, and how the purchase had helped them and their communities. At the time I was committed to the concept of ethical consumerism and the promise of consumer-driven social change.

When I had the epiphany in Starbucks the lens through which I saw the social world, and commodities in particular, had shifted substantially since my days of shopping at 10,000 Villages. Having spent a year and half in graduate school focusing on race and critical cultural theory, I saw in the package of Starbucks coffee not a simple promise of social change, but also a thick description of people and place framed by discourses of racial and cultural difference rooted in colonial imaginations of the “Other.” It struck me as hardly coincidental that such imaginations had been used as justifications for enslavement, resource exploitation, directed agricultural production, and systems of domination during the colonial era (Cruz 1999; Said 1978; Winant 2001), and that they were now being used to reconstitute global capitalism as an enterprise of socially responsible development.

Suddenly I saw around me a world of goods framed as the “right” choice for social and environmental reasons. Whether it was sweatshop free-clothing, Fair Trade or organic food products, sustainably sourced wood, “green” cleaning products and cosmetics, or hybrid vehicles, the message was the same: by buying this product, you are changing the world for the better. The pervasiveness of this message struck me as an adaptation of the ideological foundation of capitalism that seemed a direct response to the rising popular awareness of the environmental and social problems associated with global capitalism.

The riots surrounding the WTO meetings in Seattle in 1999 proved to be a watershed moment for consumer awareness of their own culpability in the negative environmental and social impacts of transnational corporations. It was after this event, and in response to consumer and activist pressure that Starbucks Coffee began sourcing (some) Fair Trade certified coffee and publishing annual “corporate social responsibility reports,” now de rigeur for large corporations (Barrientos et al 2007; Grodnik and Conroy 2007). Widespread corporate commitments to socially responsible sourcing and relations of production, and an upsurge in ethical certifications and labels followed suit. I wondered then about the greater social significance of these emergent dual phenomena: ethical capitalism and consumerism. Do they represent moves toward real egalitarian change for the poor and workers of the world? Do they suggest hope for a long-term livable planet? Or are they merely symbolic concessions to appease critiques of a deeply problematic system of global production and consumption?

Further, these evident changes in both capitalism and consumerism raise questions about contemporary consumer subjectivity, and popular perceptions of global trade, production, and labor. My dissertation responds to these growing phenomena with a desire to understand what it is that such branding and certification schemes tap into in today’s American consumer. What values and desires, what sense of self does ethical capitalism respond to and promote? What exactly is being expressed and reproduced through ethical consumption? To put it another way, what is the cultural logic of ethical capitalism?

To get at these questions, this study employs Stuart Hall’s (1973) conceptualization of encoding/decoding and examines the narrative that is encoded into ethical coffee by the specialty coffee industry, and the narrative that is decoded by consumers. Through interviews with thirty people who work in all levels of the industry from importers to baristas, and through content analysis of a nationally representative sample of over 400 pieces of packaging and marketing of materials, this research identifies and analyzes the ideological, discursive, and symbolic aspects of ethical capitalism that manifest in coffee. Through surveys of 150 consumers of ethical coffee and interviews with thirty I identify what motivates consumers to make ethical product choices, the consumer subjectivities they inhabit, and how they understand themselves in relation to coffee producers. Conducted over two years in Santa Barbara and San Francisco, California, in Seattle, Washington, and in Portland, Oregon, this research sheds light on the contemporary forces that work to reproduce global capitalism, despite widespread awareness of the many ecological, social, and political problems associated with the system. In what follows I present a brief synopsis of my dissertation findings, beginning with findings from industry interviews.

Ultimately, what seems to be the lynch pin of the logic of ethical coffee within the specialty coffee industry is product quality, for it is concern for this that organizes the dominant industry approach to ethical sourcing. It is a desire to improve coffee quality that structures how participants work with producers, and on what they work with producers (agronomy, production, and farm and community infrastructure projects). The industry goal is not only to continually improve coffee quality, but to increase the supply of specialty coffee by creating new producer markets, and to ensure the long-term sustainability of the supply chain. As the buyers I interviewed expressed, they understand their role as cultivators of the specialty coffee supply--as “curators of exceptional producers,” as one participant put it.

Quality thus organizes the relationship between buyers and producers and dictates the scope of knowledge and education for producers deemed necessary by the industry. It follows within this framework that as producers garner more knowledge and hone their skills of production that they and the laborers they employ are more valuable to the industry, and thus are paid higher than average prices for their product. It is primarily because (according to participants) certification models like Fair Trade and organic do not emphasize quality improvement that many of those interviewed do not support these models for their own businesses.

The outcome of this logic then is purely and simply money. If producers listen to the specialty industry, accept its dictates for production, and improve the quality of their product as measured by industry standards, then they will earn more money. Producers will then be able to improve quality of life for themselves and their communities--they will enjoy the “fringe benefits” of education, health care, and stable food and water supplies if they succeed in this model. Thus, within the specialty coffee industry, the logic of ethical capitalism differs little from the traditional logic of free-market capitalism. The logic of quality deployed by participants suggests that so long as the playing field is leveled by equal access to information and agreement upon the terms of trade, then ethical trade can flourish. For this reason the majority of them do not endorse stronger government or organizational oversight of trade. With its emphasis placed on competition and consumer choice, at its core, the logic demonstrated by participants is of free-market capitalism. One participant stated this plainly when she defined ethical capitalism as “all the good things of capitalism.”

While the industry narrative of ethical coffee pivots on quality, the narrative encoded in the product itself is of life on the farm. Despite the variety of coffee companies represented in content analysis data, clear trends are observable in representations of the setting and actors depicted, as well as in the way the relations of global capitalism and ethical sourcing are described. These data set the narrative of ethical coffee on the farm or in the surrounding jungle where coffee is produced, depicted through thick description and evocative imagery of people and place. Latin American producers are the most commonly represented people, and are most often depicted in a state of rest, as opposed to action. The discourse within the data frames producers and their communities as in need of help, and in turn, coffee companies and consumers are positioned as ethical actors who respond to needs through the channels of capitalism and consumption.

With travel narrative style tales of origin, what consumers get then when they purchase ethical coffee is an invitation to travel vicariously through the commodity to coffee producing communities, and to witness through the eyes of coffee buyers what life is like there. Ethical coffee offers consumers a touristic experience to an exotic land without having to leave their home environs. When the Burke Museum of Natural History at the University of Seattle launched an exhibit on the coffee industry in 2009 they pinned down this aspect of coffee consumption concisely into a six word title: “Coffee: the world in your cup.”

In this place the lives of producers appear leisurely, relaxed, and easy, as evidenced by farmers who stand idly around, sometimes over a worksite, but often simply gazing into the distance, as if admiring their place in life. This is underscored by the ease of the personal gaze provided by direct eye contact between producers and consumers. Otherwise producers, and women in particular, spend their time harvesting and handling coffee cherries, though these activities play a less prominent role in the narrative than do positions of leisure. The less prevalent representation of harvesting and processing coffee cherries downplays the vast amount of labor (much of that seasonal, migrant labor) that goes into the coffee harvest, and into processing the harvested cherries to ready them for export. The presence of children, either at play or at school, tells a story of families and a thriving community that offers a relatable and reassuring image to consumers.

The often friendly and smiling faces and relaxed nature of producers suggest that producers are happy to produce for and eager to interact with consumers. In particular those that depict the hands of producers offering harvested coffee cherries up for view indicate a willingness to labor for the nourishment and pleasure of consumers. Further, the narrative suggests that producers welcome surveillance of their work by allowing themselves to be viewed while they direct their gaze on their task at hand or downward and away from the viewer. These actions suggest a partnership with, and respect for the consumer, yet also a deference to the consumer and a willingness to serve the consumer’s needs.

Despite the variety of companies and institutions from which this data sample was drawn, the definition of ethical sourcing is relatively uniform. Messages about sourcing on product packaging and marketing materials tend to reference price paid to producers, programs and projects at origin to ensure community and supply-chain sustainability, pre-financing and long-term direct relationships with farmers, and farmer empowerment. Ethical coffee is framed as a response to bad conditions and unmet needs in coffee growing communities, and consumers and coffee companies are positioned as ethical actors who help producers.

A market-based solution for the problems and hardships faced by producers of course requires consumer participation. In keeping with this logic, a consumer-driven model of change that positions consumers as saviors (and thus ethical actors) is trumpeted throughout the data. On a package of its coffee, Celestial Seasonings explains, “By choosing this Fair Trade Certified coffee, you are directly contributing to the livelihood of coffee growing communities.” Green Mountain Coffee Roasters sums up this sentiment on a package of their coffee with these words: “What ends up in your cup is simply pure, fresh and fabulous coffee. It’s the taste of a better world.”

Descriptions of laborers that draw on colonial tropes of need and market-based development work together with discourses of racial and cultural difference to construct the laborer as fundamentally different from the consumer, with different needs and standards of living. Such discourses frame laborers as in need of no more than the minimum things required for a basic standard of living, and assures that the practices of the business allow these conditions to be achieved. Thus what the predominantly white northern consumer as psychic tourist sees through this narrative is an image of a happy, cooperative, and leisurely brown producer that fits well within the logics of neoliberal market-based development models. It seems that also what is sold is a promise of fixity of producers and their communities, in terms of sustainability, social status, and geographical placement. Happy producers and beautiful, preserved places are sold by this narrative, which truly does offer consumers “the taste of a better world.”

As for consumers, the people who participated in this part of the research are a homogenous bunch. They are mostly white, middle class, college educated young adults (average age 32.5 years). Politically speaking, they skew from centrist to left. They are regular coffee drinkers both at home and in coffeehouses, and most became aware of ethical coffee between 1999 and 2002, and primarily through the product itself. They regularly purchase ethical coffee and select coffeehouses based on their knowledge of whether or not ethical coffee is served. Over half of survey respondents reported that ethical sourcing factored into their decision to patronize the coffeehouse in which they were surveyed, and sixty-one percent reported that they regularly purchase ethical coffee. Three quarters of interview participants reported that they specifically seek ethical coffee and sixty percent reported that they consistently purchase it.

While they are committed consumers of ethical coffee, their understanding of ethical sourcing models is uniformly vague (though indeed patterned). The vast majority of participants have an essentialized understanding of ethical sourcing models. Only a handful of interview participants have a nuanced understanding of the distinctions between different models. Yet despite this, clear trends emerge from interviews and surveys of consumers of ethical coffee, which are presented as four themes: 1. why ethical coffee is the “right” choice, 2. definitions of ethical coffee, 3. definitions of “ethical” or “socially responsible” business, and 4. the tensions and contradictions expressed in articulations of ethical consumer subjectivity.

Consumers of ethical coffee choose to purchase the product because they believe that doing so yields positive change in the lives of coffee producers, and thus, is the right thing to do. They recognize that some American consumption patterns produce negative consequences around the world, and consequently feel a responsibility to be a part of a solution and not reproduce the problem. They seek to do good and to avoid doing harm to people and the planet. They experience ethical consumption as a feel-good way of fulfilling the needs and expectations to which they have grown accustomed. Ethical products and the businesses that sell them afford participants the opportunity to avoid what they frame as “bad” consumer choices and practices, and allow them to inhabit and express an informed and moral consumer subjectivity. Ethical coffee thus responds to and assuages (to a certain extent) the anxieties that participants feel due to their awareness of global inequalities and their relationships to them.

For participants, what makes coffee ethical is directly juxtaposed against the poor and difficult conditions they imagine define the typical coffee growing community that result from low wages and exploitative forces and actors. This popular image of producing communities and suffering imagined therein fuel the desire to do good and avoid doing harm described above. Thus, for participants, coffee can be labeled “ethical” when it avoids or fixes problematic conditions. In fact, how participants define ethical coffee reflects the industry message presented on the product and in coffeehouses--primarily they define it in monetary terms. They also point to equitable and fair relations of trade, a minimum quality of life for producers, good labor conditions, environmental protections, and farm and community sustainability.

One of the legacies of the cultural resonance of the WTO protests of 1999 is the commonplace view that big corporations are bad, or have the potential to be very bad. Media events related to the environmental and social abuses of global and transnational corporations producing beyond U.S. borders have resonated with consumers of ethical coffee. When consumers talk about the problems associated with corporations, and among some, global capitalism, they reference a handful of well known corporations that get cast as villains in the global market (Nike, Taco Bell, Monsanto, for example). In terms of coffee, Starbucks and Folger’s come up often as a bad corporate actors.

Simultaneously turning inward toward their own communities, they tout the merits of shorter commodity chains, localized industry and trade, and cast small, local, independent businesses as good actors positioned against the large, mainstream “villains.” Quite similar to how consumers frame the definition of ethical coffee in juxtaposition to the troubling image of origin, those interviewed articulate socially responsible, or ethical, business practices in reference to the failings signaled by the media events surrounding villains. Unlike those interviewed from within the industry, consumers are in favor of government or governing body oversight, regulations and certifications that reinforce ethical businesses practices.

Finally, they express tensions and contradictions about their consumer subjectivities. There are real material constraints in their lives that shape their ability and desire to pursue ethical consumption. Money and time are limited resources that they must manage to protect their own economic self-interest and quality of life, and to balance the responsibilities and demands of their everyday lives. Their awareness of corporate bad-actors and mainstream co-optation has raised their suspicions about the sincerity of claims of ethical business practices and sourcing models. And some of them feel overwhelmed by the many ethical options on the market and the multitude of global social and environmental problems that these options point to. Yet, they consistently purchase ethical coffee, which reveals that despite their skepticism and the contradictions they see in ethical consumerism themselves, they believe that consuming for change is what they can do to make a positive impact in the world.

It seems then that at its heart, ethical consumption is premised on the recognition of problems associated with global capitalism (at least implicitly), and for this reason it can be said that as a social phenomenon it expresses a critical orientation and awareness. It is the manifestation of anxiety on the part of consumers over how the system of global capitalism works, and the role that they play within it. Yet participants stop short of realizing this critique for what it is--a condemnation of a system. Instead they focus on select bad actors and fault governments and greedy middlemen in producing nations for creating the conditions that exploit coffee producers and bind them within an impoverished existence.

Considering the trajectory of the narrative of ethical coffee, it is clear that different aspects of it are emphasized across the three stages--industry, product, and consumer. Yet importantly, the strand of it that remains salient at each stage is sustainability of farms and producing communities. As the specialty coffee industry frames it, as the product exclaims, and as consumers emphasize, keeping producers in the business of growing coffee is imperative. The specialty coffee industry is invested in this because it does not exist without premium quality coffee. The product touts sustainability, in terms of both ecology and economy, because it is popularly understood to be a righteous goal. In an era when the realities (or at least the consequences) of global warming and climate change have invaded popular consciousness, sustainability sells. For consumers, the significance of sustainability is multidimensional. Ecologically speaking, assurances of sustainability are important to them because it offers them the peace of mind that in terms of global warming, they are a part of the solution, at least as far as their coffee consumption is concerned. Assurances of the economic sustainability of producers and their communities allows consumers to rest easy with the belief that their choice helps people in need, as opposed to doing them harm.

While it seems that consumers harbor concern over the actions of corporations and the relations they cultivate with producers around the world, they also lack real knowledge of the sourcing models that bring coffee to their mouths. In this light, consumer concern manifests as well-intentioned reactionary purchasing. I see this as evidence of the successful commodification of morality. By embedding a narrative that features happy producers thriving due to the choices of consumers, the specialty coffee industry has successfully created a market for morality. Together the discourse and imagery that surrounds the product functions as a sign (in the Saussurian sense (1916)) of ethical relations of trade, which signals to the consumer that all is well and they have done the right thing. By foregrounding the image and narrative of the laborer the industry has convinced consumers that they do not need to worry about the laborer. This is a more gripping form of Marx’s commodity fetishism (1978), since the relations and real conditions of production remain obscured by ethical coffee. The narrative presented by it masquerades as a removal of the curtain, but in fact it is the same curtain painted over with an enchanting scene.

The act of purchasing an ethically coded good then, such as Fair Trade or “Farm Direct” coffee, offers a momentary alleviation of the postmodern stress and anxiety (that stem from the conditions described by Jameson (2000) and Baudrillard (1981)) that many U.S. consumers feel. When solutions to global social, environmental and economic problems seem hopeless, making the “right” consumer choice is an available action that resonates with immediacy, as the narrative tells consumers that their act starts a chain reaction of goodness that trickles down to producers in the global south. I suggest then that the anxieties and critical impulses that tip U.S. consumers toward ethical goods are dampened by the act of ethical consumption. In effect a Marxian “false consciousness” is produced by such an act (Marx and Engels 1978), and ultimately a process of “repressive desubmimation” as described by Marcuse is reproduced (1964).

So where is the hope in this situation? Hope lies in the unease, the anxiety, and the discomfort that pushes consumers to harbor suspicions of the relations and conditions of production. But, if we are to make moves toward real social change and global economic justice, we must embrace our consumer anxieties, not assuage them through the self-gratifying channels of consumption. To the extent that we opt for the simple fix of ethical consumption we fail to actually confront the root of the problem that causes these anxieties--the system of capitalism. Instead, we reproduce the very thing that troubles us. We must confront and marinate in our anxieties, allow them to trouble us, and then use them as motive to engage in what Marcuse (1964) called “negative thinking”--the unthinking of the norms that limit the possibilities for what social and economic relations can look like. Only then can we imagine social justice into being.


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