Commodities seem like trivial things at first, easy to understand. A coat, cup of coffee or mobile phone. We use them daily and do not have to really think about where they come from. They might appear as simple things that fall from the sky into our shopping baskets. This article explores the world of consumers, the meanings of fetish attached to certain commodities (especially those related to food) and aims to show how and why to remove the veil from seemingly exciting products we use on a daily basis.
Karl Marx described a commodity as a mysterious thing, a product of human labour consisting out of a series of complicated social relations, not so easy to untangle. He also coined the term commodity fetishism related to the fact that in reality, a commodity is always more than what it is. Commodities are crystallisations of social and material relationships, but consumers do not see it that way. Fetishism is what attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities. Think of chocolate, the way it is portrayed and what we associate with it. A mouth-watering treat with an exquisite taste. A perfect gift! But is that it?
Food-related commodities can shape a part of who we are. Foods express our identities, both individual and collective, for instance in reference to our class, culture and religion. Certain commodities may have a perceived status with their consumption, such as drinking tea is considered to be a ‘British thing‘ and consuming exotic fruit may relate to demonstrating our knowledge of foreign cuisines, thus being well-travelled which comes with other associations.
Removing the veil
So, why should we try to defetish commodities? Removing the veil can help consumers to better understand what they may identify with as well as it reveals different people and processes involved in the production of certain commodities. Connections consumers may not be even aware of. It can show environmental and social outcomes and the mutual relationship between consumers and producers. You may have recently seen Iceland’s ‘banned from TV‘ Christmas advert that has attracted attention of millions of people online. It nicely detetishes the commodity of palm oil which can be found in daily-use products such as bread, chocolate or shampoo. The advert illustrates an effort to increase consumer awareness of the environmental risks related to palm production.
To untangle complicated relationships and to ‘see the world in a grain of sand‘, a commodity chain analysis is useful. Imagine a commodity chain as an intricate network of labour and production processes, often found in different geographical areas, whose end result is a finished commodity. Think about creating the commodity of coffee, all the stages and different relationships (Image 2). Understanding relationships in the whole commodity chain can help to defetish commodities and unveil social, cultural, environmental or geographical connections. That can lead to shifting power between producers and consumers, and alternatively, it may contribute to social change.
Fancy a cuppa?
Ethnographic research based on ‘follow the thing‘ approach is at heart of studying commodity chains (by tracing a commodity and its circulation through different contexts) and has been used to untangle relationships between those who produce tea in Sri Lanka and British consumers. By following the tea leaf to the teacup. The author, Wrathmell concludes that tea trade does not only connect different geographic spaces but also creates relationships which are essentially defined by an inequality of people, difference and disparity. She writes that drinking tea is not as simple as it was before the research. Stirring her tea creates a storm in the cup, the storm of people and processes of those connected to her right at that moment.
Links to food security
In the context of this article, if we think of food commodity chains as complicated, possibly fragile, networks consisting of various elements contributing to one final good, then once a linkage breaks, the whole system may be under risk. Stability and sustainability of these networks also determine the outcomes for associated concerns such as food security and food justice. Is the commodity chain contributing to a just and sustainable system? Does it add to or deprives the dimensions of food security, i.e. food availability, access, utilisation and stability?
While tea is one the world’s most popular drinks, people producing it often struggle as they lack power in the tea supply chain that is controlled by large corporations. Companies may benefit from commodity fetishism driving the consumption society and capitalist dominance. Attention towards commodity chains and the understanding of different outcomes at various stages can be useful for shifting consumer perceptions of what is considered ordinary. Efforts of zooming in reality of certain commodities represent movements such as Fairtrade, that aim to support local sustainability and better conditions for farm workers in less economically developed countries. That also contributes to their food security, for example, by better resistance to seasonal hunger through stable incomes and improved access to food through crop diversification and infrastructure building schemes. Fairtrade’s ability to reach more consumers is, however, limited by the prevalence of commodity fetishism and the ‘hear no evil, see no evil’ mentality.
In the consumer society where production is distant from consumption, people tend to fetishise commodities and see them as things with an independent existence and life on its own. Revealing the hidden complexities and relationships through the focus on commodity chain analysis can be the first step towards change. That is in shifting power dynamics within the commodity chain and perhaps turning perceptions of some consumers. These changes can consequently contribute to improved food security and food justice. Although there is a gap between the values and actions of consumers, making reality more transparent can be the right direction for a better tomorrow.