It’s no surprise that oftentimes the one — and only — consideration for consumers when buying a product is cost. But to say that all consumers are single-minded in their buying practices is to undermine growing trends that point to ethical turns in the market. The increasing availability and success of fair-trade products are evidence that consumers are looking to positively influence the greater world through their purchases.

For sociologist Keith Brown, Ph.D., the motivations and internal struggles of buyers have captured his attention and inspired research, culminating in a new book, Buying into Fair Trade (NYU Press). In the book, he analyzes more than 100 interviews with fair-trade consumers, national leaders of the movement, coffee farmers and artisans to answer questions about the often-conflicting ideas of morality and profitability in a global economy.

Brown discovered that, overall, most consumers want to let their ethics guide their decisions, but they also want others to notice they have made socially responsible choices.

“I’ve found that socially responsible consumers are neither ‘heroes’ nor ‘dupes,’” Brown explains. “In other words, these shoppers are not steadfast in their socially conscious buying behavior, always making rational choices. Nor are they easily manipulated by advertising strategies that target their emotions.”

Brown has found that many consumers say they’ll pay a higher premium for socially responsible products, only to contradict that promise. Cost, aesthetics and quality often complicate their decisions.

Nevertheless, an increasing number of consumers seek to change the world through shopping, but in roundabout ways. They may shop at places they view as unethical in order to purchase products they view as socially responsible.

“Customers are often aware of the contradictions in their shopping patterns. They’ll earmark food as a product that should be ethically sourced, but they don’t have the financial resources to apply their ideals to all purchases. I’ve heard from consumers that they shop at Walmart so they can have more money to spend at Whole Foods,” Brown explains. “If they spend less on a T-shirt, they can afford to buy organically grown produce or fair trade coffee.”

But consumers aren’t the only ones facing a conundrum. Brown has found that retailers themselves often shy away from morally charged conversations, choosing to discuss other aspects of products, such as quality, taste or functionality.

“Despite the fact that our society seems very politically divided, people generally go about their everyday interactions as if it’s Thanksgiving dinner, avoiding morally charged issues,” says Brown. “For fair trade, this is critical.”

Brown notes that skepticism is a hurdle for the fair trade movement as well, because consumers need to be convinced that their ethical purchases are making a difference. If consumers see for themselves that the extra few cents they’re paying for a cup of coffee is translating into a better education or health care for the children of a coffee farmer in Nicaragua, they’re more likely to continue making the decision to buy fair-trade coffee.

“We no longer know the people who work in the factories or plow the fields. They’re not our neighbors, family members or friends,” Brown explains. “Globalization has taken intimacy away from our buying practices.”

From Co-op to Cup

Brown has made two trips to La Corona, Nicaragua to experience coffee farming firsthand. The first trip came in 2005 while Brown was completing his dissertation. During a second visit last year, Brown traveled to the region with 15 SJU undergraduates enrolled in his course “Fair-Trade Coffee: From Co-op to Cup,” designed to teach students about the process of producing fair-trade coffee and how that process benefits farmers in Central America.