Consumption, Cafés, and Ethical Sourcing

Years ago, a theory of physical space for consumption of goods and services was developed — the theory was called the “Servicescape” (Booms & Bitner, 1981; Bitner, 1992).

In a retail café, the servicescape could be defined in terms of fixturing, various leasehold improvements, mill-work, furniture, and, even staff and customers (Bookman, 2013; Oldenburg, 1989). The interesting thing was that product, though integral to the business of a café, was not viewed on the same level as the atmospherics of the space; the experience was central within the theory, with product as an unseen support for the customer to imbibe and not really think about.

Large scale awareness of ethical issues in agricultural product sourcing and manufacture, though not new, gained momentum in the late eighties and early nineties with the advent of, in part, fair trade. Semiotics would play a large role here: Marks would be the main consumer indicator of ethical sourcing legitimacy; certification further to standards would be guaranteed for the consumer by way of a symbol on a packaged good.

Where does the servicescape meet ethical consumption concerns? Does the servicescape present in cafés use the semiotics of marks or ethical sourcing messaging as a way to impart ideas (on a superficial level) of sustainability and ethical sourcing to consumers, such that the message need not be explored further? Does it even matter to the consumer?

My research will endeavor to answer the question of whether or not consumers care about ethical sourcing in retail cafés. I will ask this question through qualitative observation, selective interviewing, and visual branding analysis of in-café messaging as relates to sustainability and fair trade.

Following a literature review, I will conduct my research in locations that will address the question being asked. I will draw conclusions from the analysis, and will end with a review of some potential alternative to semiotic mark messaging with a brief exploration of organic and geographic indication as strategies that could blend more seamlessly with the café venue and the mission to improve producer livelihoods and remedy trade injustice.


Bookman, S. (2013). Brands and Urban Life: Specialty Coffee, Consumers, and the Co-creation of Urban Cafe Sociality. Space and Culture, 17(1), 85–99. doi:10.1177/1206331213493853

Bitner, M. J. (1992). Servicescapes: The impact of physical surroundings on customers and employees. Journal of Marketing, 56(2), 57–71. doi: 10.2307/1252042

Booms, B.H. and Bitner, M.J. (1981). “Marketing strategies and organisation structures for service firms”. In Donnelly, J; George, WR. Marketing of Services. Chicago, IL: American Marketing Association.

Oldenburg, R (1989). The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty \Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts at the Heart of the Community. New York: Marlowe & Co.

Post Script

If one were to posit that it didn’t really matter to consumers that the coffee or tea they were drinking was ethically sourced, that the atmospherics of space were the main motivators, and that experience of place was paramount, then, how could this be squared with trade injustice inherent in global commodity sourcing, especially as relates to the main products offered in cafés, and the mission to remedy this proffered by certification labeling organizations? If the answer were that there was no real way to do this squaring, then, is there another way to achieve the outcome of rectifying the trade injustice? The analysis of my research question and conclusion will examine this additional question.

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