Since 1999 Fair Trade USA, formerly TransFair USA, has brought Fair Trade certified coffee to the U.S. market. The organization, which manages the licensing and distribution of products in the U.S., introduced millions of consumers to the principles of Fair Trade. They did so primarily through coffee, which accounts for over seventy percent of the American Fair Trade market. Through product branding and advertising campaigns, even an award-winning documentary film, people in the U.S. have come to associate the Fair Trade label with democratically organized farming cooperatives, a minimum price that on average is higher than the price per pound paid on the open market, and social, economic, and environmental initiatives in producing communities. But, in January, 2012, Fair Trade USA (FTUSA) changed the rules dramatically. While they continue to market the small-scale farmer and the cooperative as the face of the brand, the base of it now is transnational corporations and large-scale plantations. So much for the little guy.
Between Thursday, November 24th–Thanksgiving–and Sunday, the 27th, an estimated 226 million Americans went shopping. Nearly three quarters of the entire population of the United States poured out of their homes, into big-box and chain stores, and spent 52.4 billion dollars. Not “million.” Billion. On “Cyber Monday” digital shoppers spent an additional $1.25 billion. This sum represents the most ever spent in one day, which beat the previous record holder, last year’s Cyber Monday, by twenty-two percent. Economists and financial analysts refer to this holiday ritual, kicked off by “Black Friday,” as an annual stimulus package. This one requires no lobbying, no congressional debate, nor political infighting. This stimulus is endorsed and paid for by the majority of Americans, without question. Sociologists have long believed that we can learn a lot about ourselves when we examine the things that we hold most dear. Particularly as it comes after an autumn of fierce protest and in the midst of a broad social movement against economic domination and wealth inequality, this year’s holiday shopping extravaganza reveals a lot about American culture, and our relationship to capitalism.