Consumer-led or consumer-dependent?

By Matthew Anderson

Republished by Research Fair Trade

Edited by Ellen Kalisperati Sociologist

In 2004, as FT sales reached the £100m mark, Harriet Lamb, Executive Director of the Fairtrade Foundation stated that ‘There has been a quiet revolution taking place, and what is so important is ordinary shoppers in this country are behind it.” This idea of a ‘consumer revolution’ has been popular in the media and has rarely been seriously challenged in the acadeamiclitereature. But what I argue in this paper is that by heavily focusing on the role of consumer demand, we are left with an over-simplified account of the growth of Fairtrade in Britian.

In contrast, Michael Goodman has highlighted the role of direct action campaigns targeted at well-know brands, such as Starbucks. He has argued that it is activist groups which are the, ‘fundamental vanguard fostering fair trade markets’. He states that, ‘In some ways, fair trade is more of a consumer-dependent movement for change rather than a consumer-led movement.’ This phrase seems to encapsulate what can be seen as more nuanced approached to understanding the role of the consumer within the fair trade movement.

The research project headed up by Clive Barnett and Paul Cloke has also looked to highlight the role of organisations involved in fair trade which seek to embed ethical purchasing in wider programmes of mobilisation, activism, lobbying and campaigning. Using the activities of Traidcraft as an example, they argue that ‘agency needs to be located not in the activities of consumers but in the articulation of intermediary organisations, social networks, and everyday practices of social reproduction.’

But what is missing from this literature, is an historical framework in order to contextualise and better understand how fair trade has developed in modern Britain. This paper sets out to provide one part of this framework by exploring the campaign for fair tea prices as a case study. This period, of the early 1970s, was a defining moment for the development of both the concepts and the practices of fair trade in Britain. For the first time NGOs including: War on Want, Christian Aid, Oxfam and World Development Movement came together to launch a consumer focused campaign.   A better understanding of this period can provide some important insights into the character of the movement, as well as challenging some assumptions about how these networks evolved, and in turn there may be lessons for the modern movement.

The Media: engaging consumer political consciousness

In recent years, a number of academics have looked at the use of the media by NGOs in anti-poverty campaigns and specifically in the mainstreaming of FT. Television in particular played a vital role in raising consumer awareness of the campaign for fair tea prices. But I argue that during the 1970s, the dynamics of this relationship were quite different in comparison to current NGO-led campaigns.

In September 1973, a World in Action team went to Sri Lanka to investigate conditions on tea plantations. For many viewers, this was the first time that they were confronted with the reality of the supply chains behind their daily cuppa. This programme although featured extensively in the campaign literature of NGOs was produced largely in secret (in order to avoid a backlash from the tea companies or Sri Lankan government) and without the input of any NGO campaign groups.

Following the broadcast of this programme articles were written in most of the daily newspapers and questions were raised in Parliament, prompting a select committee enquiry into the conditions on tea estates in Sri Lanka. The campaign that followed focused jointly on the British government and British tea companies that owned tea plantations in Sri Lanka. Many within the NGO community hoped to find natural allies in the co-operative movement and the trade unions – but as the following sections will show this support was not always forthcoming.


What this case study demonstrates is that there is a need for a more nuanced approach towards the role of the consumer if we are to fully understand the reasons behind the growth of Fairtrade in Britain. I have argued that ‘ethical consumers’ did not emerge fully fledged but were shaped through the campaigns and experience of alternative – or fair – trade.

Ultimately fair trade developed as an alternative approach that filled the vacuum left, not only by government and business reluctance to engage consumers on issues of international trade and development; but also the reluctance of the traditional consumer movement, in the form of the Co-operative, and the labour movement, as seen with the TUC.

The politically neutral figure of the consumer proved a valuable tool in allowing NGOs to move beyond the social, cultural or religious affiliations of their core supporters and attempt to influence the general public in a way that few had succeeded in doing previously. This language of consumer activism has remained a prominent feature of many fair trade messages. But this campaign literature should not be accepted uncritically, rather it needs to be understood within a wider political the context that also takes into account outside influences such as: the charity commission, government and mainstream business.

One issue central to the campaign for fair tea prices was whether tea producers were able to purchase basic necessities with their wages. This campaign agenda of basic needs has, in recent years, been taken up by Consumers International and demonstrates an interesting direction for consumer politics. This could be lead to a more holistic understanding of the position of producers within the fair trade movement and by recognising that they are also consumers, may help to inform discussions about fair trade minimum prices.