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Consequentialism, Indirect Effects and Fair Trade

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 February 2012

University of St


In this article I consider two consequentialist positions on whether individuals in affluent countries ought to purchase Fair Trade goods. One is a narrow argument, which asserts that individuals should purchase Fair Trade goods because this will have positive direct effects on poverty reduction, by, for example, channelling money into development. I argue that this justification is insufficient to show that individuals should purchase Fair Trade goods because individuals could achieve similar results by donating money to charity and, therefore, without purchasing Fair Trade goods. The second position has a wider focus. It notes both the direct effects of purchasing Fair Trade goods and possible indirect effects, such as the impact this might have on other individuals. I argue that certain actions, of which Fair Trade is one example, will be more likely to encourage individuals who would not otherwise contribute to poverty reduction to contribute and that this may produce additional positive value. Although space prohibits specific conclusions about Fair Trade, I note that considerations of this kind could give us reason to purchase such goods beyond those that issue from the direct effects of doing so and that, as such, they are crucial for determining whether individuals should purchase Fair Trade goods.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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1 This is not to say that views other than consequentialism do not value good outcomes; only that this focus is most typically associated with consequentialism.

2 FLO, ‘What is Fairtrade?’, <> (2010).

3 See, for example, FLO, ‘What is Fairtrade?’.

4 N. Hassoun, ‘Making Free Trade Fair’, Carnegie Mellon Department of Philosophy Working Paper Series, Paper 356, <> (2011), pp. 15–19; Philips, J., ‘Is There a Moral Case for Fair Trade Products? On the Moral Duty for Consumers to buy and for Governments to Support Fair Trade Products’, The Impact of Fair Trade, ed. Ruben, R. (Wageningen, 2008), pp. 240–3Google Scholar.

5 Philips, ‘Is There a Moral Case for Fair Trade Products?’, p. 249.

6 See, for example, B. Lindsay, ‘Grounds for Complaint? Understanding the Coffee Crisis’, Paper for the Centre for Trade Policy Studies, 16 <> (2003).

7 See, for example, LeClair, M. S., ‘Fighting the Tide: Alternative Trade Organisations in the Era of Global Free Trade’, World Development 30.6 (2002), pp. 949–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kurjanska, M. and Risse, M., ‘Fairness in Trade II: Export Subsidies and the Fair Trade Movement’, PPE 7.1 (2008), pp. 45–6Google Scholar.

8 This research is nicely summarized in Hassoun, ‘Making Free Trade Fair’, pp. 15–19. See also the collection of articles in The Impact of Fair Trade, ed. R. Ruben (Wageningen, 2008).

9 See Littrell, M. A. and Dickson, M. A., Social Responsibility in the Global Market: Fair Trade of Cultural Products (London, 1999), pp. 61112Google Scholar; Mohan, S., Fair Trade without the Froth: A Dispassionate Economic Analysis of ‘Fair Trade’ (London, 2010), pp. 3446Google Scholar.

10 I should note that I have explored the comparative challenge in detail elsewhere (A. Walton, ‘The Common Arguments for Fair Trade’, Political Studies, forthcoming). An argument with a similar thrust can also be found in Kurjanska and Risse, ‘Fairness in Trade II’, pp. 43–9. As such, what follows is a stylized version of the argument, shortened to allow space for the other arguments of this article. I refer readers who desire more detail to the above texts.

11 Kurjanska and Risse, ‘Fairness in Trade II’, pp. 46–7.

12 Hassoun, ‘Making Free Trade Fair’, p. 6.

13 Kurjanska and Risse, ‘Fairness in Trade II’, p. 48.

14 Kurjanska and Risse, ‘Fairness in Trade II’, p. 45.

15 Kurjanska and Risse, ‘Fairness in Trade II’, p. 49.

16 This research is summarized in Singer, P., The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty (New York, 2010), pp. 64–5Google Scholar.

17 See Singer, The Life You Can Save, pp. 64–5.

18 See Fairtrade Foundation, ‘Global Fairtrade sales increase by 22%’, <> (2009) and D. Milmo, ‘Fairtrade's Annual Sales Defy Recession to Pass £1bn’, The Guardian, <> (2011).

19 See, for example, IGD, ‘Interest in Fair Trade Doubles’, <> (2008).

20 Ipsos MORI, ‘A Survey of Public Attitudes to the Charity Commission’, <> (1999).

21 One objection that might be raised here is that larger, more bureaucratic charities can be more cost-effective owing to economies of scale, thus offsetting the disvalue of not garnering widespread popularity. For what it is worth, my understanding is that in practice these charities are not usually more efficient. On this see Giving What We Can, ‘Recommended Charities’, <> (2011) and Giving What We Can, ‘Charity Comparisons’, <> (2011). However, as I will highlight in the next section, even if this objection is accurate, it does not undermine my broader arguments.

22 Brown, M. B., Fair Trade: Reform and Realities in the International Trading System (London, 1993), p. 180Google Scholar; Bird, K. and Hughes, D., ‘Ethical Consumerism: The Case of “Fairly-Traded” Coffee’, Business Ethics: A European Review 6.3 (1997), pp. 159–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 161.

23 On this see Elster, J., The Cement of Society: A Study of Social Order (Cambridge, 1989)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 I owe thanks to an audience at the University of Warwick's Centre for Ethics, Law, and Public Affairs for comments on an earlier draft of this article and special thanks to Matthew Clayton, Chloé Lewis and Dorothea Baur for extensive discussion of it.