The National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) is a research center for ethnology and cultural anthropology.

Studies on the Thought and Practice of “Fair Trade”

Joint Research Coordinator SUZUKI Motoi

Reserch Theme List


critique of capitalism, loose alliances, diversification of practice


The objective of this research is to study results of fair trade—a concept which has attracted a great deal of attention as a method for assisting developing countries through trade—in terms of both the idea and practice. The object of study, namely fair trade, will be considered not simply in terms of trade carried out by members of the Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International (FLO) or International Fair Trade Association (IFAT), which is fair trade in its narrow sense, but also include overall trade carried out with the goal of supporting producers, which is fair trade in the broad sense-- that is, alternative trade. Our investigations concerning the philosophy of fair trade will address the basic question of why the concept of fairness (justness) is now important. We will look at related issues within parameters that emphasize the fairness of trade, primarily in the literature on economic thought and development theory, social movement theory, and conversion theory within anthropology. Alternatively, our investigations on the practical side of fair trade will look at the basic question: to what degree fair trade can actually aid developing countries? Looking at the case examples, we will consider themes such as the social, economic and cultural impact on manufacturers in developing nations, the pluses and minuses of certification systems and the role of consumers in developed countries.

Research Results

During the past three and a half years, participants in this research group have met ten times and made twenty-four presentations. The fourth meeting was open to the public and held in Kyoto at Campus Plaza Kyoto.
As stated in the project objectives, our research addressed both the conceptual and practical aspects of fair trade. On the conceptual side we asked, “Why is the concept ‘fair” important?” Two points emerged clearly. First, the fair trade movement is a vigorous response to the perceived risk of a growing gap between rich and poor resulting from promotion of free trade. Second, the theoretical basis for the feeling of risk to which fair trade responds is not new. The fair trade movement is fundamentally sustained by an intellectual current critical of capitalism. Major sources of ideas considered during our research included Karl Polyani’s concept of the double movement, Adam Smith’s theory of moral sentiments, E. P. Thompson and James Scott’s discussions of moral economy, and Amartya Sen’s discussion of inequality. None of the works consulted directly addresses the issue of fair trade, but all involve critiques of capitalism that have helped to legitimate the fair trade movement.
On the practical side, the central question became, “How can fair trade provide practical support to developing countries?” The research group began by identifying the various actors involved in fair trade, then carried out case studies of each of the types of actors in question. Research on producers included coffee growers in Tanzania, Mexico and Laos, tea growers in India, and cacao producers in Belize, to confirm the impact of fair trade on them. On the consumer side, we reviewed the results of research on the Japanese market for fair trade products and also conducted research on local brand promotion, the local economy movement in Italy, and the local food movement in America, to explore the characteristics of consumers who purchase fair trade products. We also examined international trends in fair trade certification, fair trade promotion activities by NGOs in Japan, and fair trade retailer strategies, and discussed relationships between fair trade and aid organizations. Two points were clarified by this analysis of actors involved in fair trade: First, fair trade is not yet in any respect a fully mature institution. There is still much room for improvement in its use as a way to provide aid to developing nations. Second, all of the actors involved in fair trade have their own interests and ideas about fair trade. Support for developing nations is only one among many reasons to support fair trade.
Through this joint research we came to understand that while the intellectual foundations of the fair trade movement can be found in the sense of crisis concerning global capitalism, individuals and groups are responding in practical terms in many different ways in a “present progressive form” as they form the networks through which fair trade products are exchanged.