By Gavin Fridell

Fair Trade Coffee: The Prospects and Pitfalls of Market-Driven Social Justice
Editions:Paperback: $ 29.95
ISBN: 9780802095909
Pages: 336

Over the past two decades, sales of fair trade coffee have grown significantly and the fair trade network has emerged as an important international development project. Activists and commentators have been quick to celebrate this sales growth, which has allowed socially just trade, labour, and environmental standards and practices to be extended to hundreds of thousands of small farmers and poor rural workers throughout the Global South. While recent assessments of the fair trade network have focused on its impact on local poverty alleviation, however, the broader political-economic and historically rooted structures that frame it have been left largely unexamined.

In Fair Trade Coffee, Gavin Fridell argues that while local level analysis is important, examination of the impacts of broader structures on fair trade coffee networks, and vice versa, are of equal if not greater significance in determining their long-term developmental potential. Using case studies from Mexico and Canada, Fridell examines the fair trade coffee movement at both the global and local level, assessing its effectiveness and locating it within political and development theory. In addition, Fridell provides in-depth historical analysis of fair trade coffee in the context of global trade, and compares it with a variety of postwar development projects within the coffee industry.

Timely, meticulously researched, and engagingly written, Fair Trade Coffee challenges many commonly held assumptions about the long-term prospects and pitfalls of the fair trade network's market-driven strategy in the era of globalization.


Reviews:A. Haroon Akram-Lodhi on Development and Change wrote:

"Fridell then reviews the growth of the fair trade market from the late 1990s before presenting a forceful overview of the three contemporary perspectives on fair trade that have emerged in the literature. These are: shaped advantage, in which poor producers seek to obtain better terms and conditions from international markets; alternative globalization, in which fair trade is seen as an alternative to neoliberal globalization; and decommodification, in which fair trade is seen to challenge the capitalist commodification imperative. Fridell convincingly argues that while most fair traders explicitly embrace the latter two perspectives, the practical impact of their interventions — in that they retain a neo-Smithian approach to markets — is not felt as challenging but rather as accommodating global market imperatives (p. 100). [...] Given that Fridell stresses the role of exploitation in the political economy of coffee, he also reviews a series of twentieth century interventions in the coffee industry that have sought, in various ways, to address that exploitation. [...] Fridell shifts from global and historical considerations to local interventions by focusing upon the achievements and prospects of a successful Mexican coffee cooperative [...] The examination of fair trade coffee production in Mexico is complemented by the examination of fair trade coffee in Canada, with its emphasis on processing, distribution and consumption. [...] Fair Trade Coffee concludes by reinforcing the conflicting values, visions and expectations of fair trade highlighted earlier. [...] Fridell argues the fair trade moral economy is profoundly limited by its ‘pro-market and non-statist orientation’ (p. 286), meaning that its ability ‘to push the social justice bar forward in the coffee industry in the future. . .does not appear likely’ (p. 288). [...] Gavin Fridell’s Fair Trade Coffee: The Prospects and Pitfalls of Market-Driven Social Justice is an ambitious book, which succeeds in its aims. Fair Trade Coffee in many ways sets an academic benchmark in its combination of political theory, social history and case study analysis. Measured and intelligent, well written and accessible, while at the same time strongly argued and quite persuasive, it will be required reading for all those concerned with international commodity trade, fair trade and social justice and will, no doubt, end up on many reading lists."

Stephen Chekmar on Rural Sociology wrote:

"Gavin Fridell, in Fair Trade Coffee: The Prospects and Pitfalls of Market-driven Social Justice, offers a pertinent analysis of one of the first consumerist-led social justice movements. The book provides a historical overview of fair trade in coffee, offering current facts and future prognosis while critically analyzing the underlying assumptions and goals of the wider social justice movement. Fridell strives to uncover the contradictory aspects between the fair-trade movement, involving pursuit of the goal of creating an alternative global trading system to run counter to the neoliberal (or free market)system, and the fair-trade network, viewed as a component of the larger movement with the explicit vision of connecting southern producers with northern consumers. Fridell argues that the network has sacrificed the movement’s vision of creating a new democratic and egalitarian trading system, and instead has complacently accepted combating global inequality through reforms within the neoliberal trading system.To highlight this contention, Fridell illustrates the relationship between fair-trade certification and the fair-trade network. [...] Throughout the book, Fridell argues that the fair-trade network has inadvertently succumbed to pursuing neoliberal trade through remaining in a fundamental market exchange relationship. [...] For Fridell, this is afar cry from the alternative trade model envisioned by the original movement. However, Fridell never fully conceptualizes what this alternative model could or should entail [...] Additionally, some of Fridell’s unique and most fundamental criticisms of the fair-trade network [...] are described only in passing at the end of the book. In addition, though Fridell is concerned that the fair-trade network has abandoned its vision of solidarity between producers and consumers, a development that is arguably one of the main roadblocks in creating a viable alternative trading system (if northern consumers are not 'connected' with the producers, then there is no impetus for change), he never explores this concern in full. A key reason for this omission may be attributed to Fridell’s methodology. [...] a key piece of research, and one that would possibly shed light on the lack of solidarity between producers and consumers in the fair-trade relationship, is any type of personal qualitative data on actual producers or consumers. Throughout his book, Fridell never utilizes any interviews with either side of the exchange relation. This seems quite a glaring hole [...] Overall, Fridell thoroughly, but perhaps too thoroughly, offers a historical critical analysis of the fair-trade coffee network. Sometimes his facts are overwhelming, and deflect attention from his thesis that the fair-trade network has lost its original vision. Additionally, it is difficult to discern what audience the book targeted. On one hand, Fridell relies on political, economic, and development theory that seems appropriate for a reader who has knowledge of the socioeconomic relations behind the commodity-trading system, but on the other hand, he explains the history of the coffee industry and the progression of the neoliberal world economy in a format more fit for readers who do not have a background in political-economic theory. Because of this, Fridell is never able to fully bring new concepts to the current debate over the fair-trading system, besides offering thoughtful criticism. Unfortunately, too often Fridell is weighted down with history and statistics instead of formulating an alternative proposition to the current path that the fair-trade network appears to be following."

Table of Contents of Fair Trade Coffee

  1. Introduction: Fair Trade and Global Capitalism
  2. Historical and Theoretical Origins of the Fair Trade Network
  3. Neoliberal Globalization and the Fair Trade Network
  4. Coffee and the Capitalist Market
  5. Coffee and the 'Double Movement'
  6. Fair Trade in Mexico: The Case of UCIRI
  7. Fair Trade Coffee in Canada
  8. Conclusion: Fair Trade as Moral Economy

About Gavin Fridell

Gavin Fridell is Canada Research Chair in International Development Studies and an associate professor at Saint Mary’s University. He is examining the political economy of fair trade, free trade and global trade governance and how trade issues play out among social movements and states.