After watching the documentary, Food Inc. the other day, one scene stood out. It wasn’t any of the film’s most shocking, arresting, or appalling moments. It actually unfolded in a rather quiet setting. A Walmart dairy buyer stands just inside the fence of an organic farmer’s lush green fields. He is there to buy as much hormone free milk as he can gobble up. “We won’t be here,” he admits, “if it wasn’t for customer preferences.”
The Walmart buyer’s statement says a lot about how the post-need consumer economy works. Even the largest retailer and supermarket chain in the world has to bend to “customer preferences.” This points to an essential aspect of the nature of transactions. Despite all the Mad Men and Madison Avenue manipulation, consumption, especially of relatively cheap, faddish items like food and fashion, represents what might think of as a rough democracy.
Walmart and other companies need to give us — consumers — what we want, or we will go elsewhere. The rough democracy of desire means, then, that we vote with our money and credit cards at the point of purchase. What’s popular sells, what isn’t doesn’t. (Remember the New Coke.) It also means that we can use our buying muscle to shape purchasing policies at the top, what or how the companies we patronize operate in the global marketplace.
While I was doing the research for my book, Everything But the Coffee, I traveled around the world going to Starbucks. The results were, in some ways, rather disappointing. For the most part, a Starbucks in Singapore looks, runs, and tastes exactly like a Starbucks in Seattle. Except for one thing. Starbucks devotes different amounts of signage and beverage and shelf space to fair trade coffee in different parts of the world.
In China and Japan, Starbucks stores said nothing about fair trade, no signs, no brochures, no messages on the back of cups. When I asked a Starbucks in official in Japan — an American who didn’t speak Japanese — why there weren’t any fair trade drinks or signs with fair trade coffee farmers on them in Tokyo, she paused for a moment and said, “on one asked.”
No one asked. Well British customers must have asked. On a visit to a Starbucks in Norwich, England in 2009, there were signs everywhere about fair trade. Grizzled, happy, handsome hard-working farmers — imagine Latino versions of the Marlboro Man — looked down from the posters on the walls and bathrooms, reassuring customers concerned about where their beans came from that their purchases improved the daily lives of growers in Central America and beyond. Sixteen months later, I went to that store again and found out that Starbucks in the United Kingdom had dramatically changed its policy. “Every Latte, Every Cappuccino,” the cups promised, was “100% Fairtrade coffee.”
In the US, the status of fair trade is somewhere in the middle between Japan and the United Kingdom. Less than 10 percent of the beans Starbucks uses here where the companies operates more than 10,000 stores come from fair trade farms, though at least a quarter of the company’s signage seems to talk about Starbucks’ modest fair trade purchases. On college campuses, where fair trade support is ostensibly the highest, the company regularly features Cafe Estimo (estimo means esteem in Spanish) — its fair trade blend — as its coffee of the day.
Thinking back to the comment from the Walmart buyer featured in Food, Inc., the differences in fair trade at Starbucks can be read as a poll, as a barometer really, for support for global awareness and fair trade consciousness in different countries around the world. These disparities also tell us something about the rough democracy of buying. Companies will, as the Walmart man tells us, shape their products to meet consumer desires. Consumers, then, need to be more aware of their power. If they raise their voices, or withdrawal their purchases, firms will respond. That’s what happened with Starbucks. Japanese customers haven’t asked for fair trade coffee, so they don’t have a choice. But in the UK, the customers wanted it and got it.
The realm of consumption may just be a new — or renewed — front for justice. Perhaps it is here — even more than the political realm where Senate seats are going in this election cycle for between $10-$141 million — that consumers can have the greatest efficacy and be heard the clearest.
But this remains only a rough form of democracy. Corporations aren’t the most publicly minded or trustworthy of allies. Like crafty centralist politicians, they want to co-op and de-politicize issues. They are interested in more votes — in more customers — not justice, or even fair trade. But they can be moved.