What is Global Commodities?

Introduction to Global Commodities….What is Global Commodities?

Global Commodities: Trade, Exploration and Cultural Exchange explores the history of a number of key commodities that changed the world. The commodities featured in this resource have been transported, exchanged and consumed around the world for hundreds of years. They helped transform societies, global trading operations, habits of consumption and social practices. The resource includes a wide range of manuscript, printed and visual primary-source materials as well as other key features to support research and teaching. Use the fully searchable interactive chronology to discover fascinating facts and world events, explore commodity prices across time and space using our unique data visualisation and view visual images in bespoke galleries and exhibitions.


The word commodity came into use in English in the 15th century, from the French commodité, “amenity, convenience”. Going further back, the French word derives from the Latin commoditas, meaning “suitability, convenience, advantage”. The Latin word commodus (from which English gets other words including commodious and accommodate) meant variously “appropriate”, “proper measure, time, or condition”, and “advantage, benefit”.

Types of commodity

The term commodity is specifically used for an economic good or service when the demand for it has no qualitative differentiation across a market.[1] In other words, a commodity good or service has full or partial but substantial fungibility; that is, the market treats its instances as equivalent or nearly so with no regard to who produced them. As the saying goes, “From the taste of wheat, it is not possible to tell who produced it, a Russian serf, a French peasant or an English capitalist.”[2] Petroleum and copper are other examples of such commodities, their supply and demand being a part of one universal market. Items such as stereo systems, on the other hand, have many aspects of product differentiation, such as the brand, the user interface and the perceived quality. The demand for one type of stereo may be much larger than demand for another.

In contrast, one of the characteristics of a commodity good is that its price is determined as a function of its market as a whole. Well-established physical commodities have actively traded spot and derivative markets. Generally, these are basic resources and agricultural products such as iron ore, sugar, rice. Soft commodities are goods that are grown, while hard commodities are ones that are extracted through mining. There is another important class of energy commodities which includes electricity, gas, coal and oil. Electricity has the particular characteristic that it is usually uneconomical to store; hence, electricity must be consumed as soon as it is processed.


Commoditization occurs as a goods or services market loses differentiation across its supply base, often by the diffusion of the intellectual capital necessary to acquire or produce it efficiently. As such, goods that formerly carried premium margins for market participants have become commodities, such as generic pharmaceuticals and DRAM chips. An article in The New York Times cites multivitamin supplements as an example of commoditization; a 50 mg tablet of calcium is of equal value to a consumer no matter what company produces and markets it, and as such, multivitamins are now sold in bulk and are available at any supermarket with little brand differentiation.[4] Following this trend, nanomaterials are emerging from carrying premium profit margins for market participants to a status of commodification.

There is a spectrum of commoditization, rather than a binary distinction of “commodity versus differentiable product”. Few products have complete undifferentiability and hence fungibility; even electricity can be differentiated in the market based on its method of generation (e.g., fossil fuel, wind, solar), in markets where energy choice lets a buyer opt (and pay more) for renewable methods if desired. Many products’ degree of commoditization depends on the buyer’s mentality and means. For example, milk, eggs, and notebook paper are not differentiated by many customers; for them, the product is fungible and lowest price is the main decisive factor in the purchasing choice. Other customers take into consideration other factors besides price, such as environmental sustainability and animal welfare. To these customers, distinctions such as “organic versus not” or “cage free versus not” count toward differentiating brands of milk or eggs, and percentage of recycled content or Forest Stewardship Council certification count toward differentiating brands of notebook paper.