The commodification of altruism: Fair Trade and the ethos of ethical consumption

Keith R Brown, University of Pennsylvania


An increasing number of products are being sold whose proceeds go, at least in part, to a charitable or altruistic cause. This trend towards what I call the commodification of altruism reflects the expansion of market forces into more and more domains of everyday life. Using data collected through participant observation and in-depth interviews (n=102) with consumers, activists, managers and store owners of Fair Trade certified coffee and handicrafts, this dissertation answers the following questions: How are altruistic ideals maintained and practiced within capitalist free markets? How are individuals mobilized to consume products that are framed as socially responsible? What do consumers desire when shopping for socially responsible products and how do they compete for status as altruistic consumers? And how do consumers activate moral boundaries when talking about and consuming products they view as ethical? "Framing a Fair Trade Life" (Ch. 2) describes the dominant cultural and economic tensions within the Fair Trade movement. This chapter uses highlights the cultural processes informing economic activity in the Fair Trade market place. "Mobilizing Altruistic Consumers" (Ch 3) utilizes Collins' "interaction ritual chains" to show how consumers develop emotional connections to Fair Trade producers and commodities. This perspective provides an alternative to the mass consumption and consumer culture perspectives which dominate the field of consumer studies. "Cultural Premiums and the Performance of Altruism" (Ch. 4) examines the performance of altruism through a dramaturlogical perspective and examines how consumers compete for status as altruistic. Chapter 5 examines the social dynamics and durability of moral boundaries showing that attitudes are insufficient in explaining how and when moral distinctions are activated. Evidence in this chapter suggests that boundary-making is not simply an outcome of an individuals' identity, but is strongly influenced by social factors. Data was collected from a Ten Thousand Villages retail store, the Independents Coffee Cooperative, a "reality tour" to a Fair Trade coffee farm in Nicaragua, a Ten Thousand Villages training workshop, and two prominent Fair Trade conferences in Baltimore, MD and Chicago, IL.

Subject Area

Marketing|Sociology|Public policy

Recommended Citation

Brown, Keith R, "The commodification of altruism: Fair Trade and the ethos of ethical consumption" (2008). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3309402.