(Un)ethical motivations and behaviours in consuming fair-trade coffee

“We need adverts promoting low-carbon products as ‘good’ for the environment, but they need to be emotionally positive and sexy as well (and you, dear consumer, can be part of this great new club), to combat years of promotion of high-status, prestige cars (‘show that you’ve arrived’), sexy air travel and exotic food from all round the world.” (Beattie, 2012)

Beattie (2012), as well as other authors, state three major problems potential green consumers are confronted in everyday life choices: having to make a quick choice (emotional response), a sexy one, and an effortless one. Effortless in the sense that No matter how favourable consumers are to eco-friendly attributes of a product, they want to buy the products that do not conflict with their established lifestyle (Manaktola & Jauhari, 2007).

Let’s take London for example: it is by far one of the busiest capital cities in the world. Coffee shops submerge (not just big chains such as Starbucks, Costa!) the city, attracting on-the-go consumers who are on the run to work.

A perfect way to engage in that attitude is to consume fair-trade coffee. Around 70 million cups of coffee are consumed each day in the UK. The total coffee market was worth £737.4m in 2009 and is forecast to grow to £880.2m by 2014. (Fairtrade.net, 2014). The UK seems to be one of the leading countries to consume fair-trade coffee. This new ‘trend’ market is increasing rapidly and should be looked upon more closely. Questions such as “what are the motivations in consuming fair-trade coffee” should be investigated further.

My attempted explanations are as follows:

  • Social inclusion/interaction: Historically, coffee consumption has always been a very social act (aka ‘coffee culture’) in European/Western culture. Consuming fair-trade coffee does not change one’s lifestyle (e.g. Manaktola & Jauhari, 2007), and at the same time allows you adopt a ‘responsible behavior’. Consuming coffee allows the individuals to consume and exchange in public/private, instead of consuming other green products individually (such as clothing), and therefore is effortless (you do not need to cook a whole meal).
  • Desirability/sexiness: As Beattie (2012) points out, social desirability is a key point in the consumption of green products. Green consumer scientist guru, Griskevicius (2010), points out how purchasing green goods is closely related to status competition, to socially be seen as purchasing a pro-environmental good. This can be related to fair-trade coffee, as the act of buying and consuming the good can be made in public (in coffee shops; on the street; in the office: on Instagram).
  • Morality: Fair-trade coffee advertisement usually includes moralistic framings (e.g. FairTrade), which might encourage consumers to purchase the green product (e.g. Bolderdijk et al., 2012).

Could we deduce then that social desirability is primary (is the main reason for fair-trade coffee consumption) and environmental concern is secondary (or non-existent)?

And if so, is this only UK specific or do the biggest coffee drinkers per capita in Europe (Scandinavian countries), for instance, consume fair-trade coffee for the same reasons?


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