Author Mark Richards

‘Fairtrade’ has existed for 25 years, guaranteeing that farmers and producers in the Third World receive a fair price. Now moves by major UK supermarkets threaten Fairtrade – and will leave consumers confused.

They say you never forget your first time. That is certainly true for me. It was in Leeds – at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, around 4:30 in the afternoon. I had been there for a meeting. I wandered into the restaurant, bought myself a sandwich, a coffee – and a bar of chocolate.

“Fairtrade?” I said. “I’ve never heard of that. What is it?”

“It’s chocolate where the growers have been paid a fair price,” the girl behind the counter replied.

As I say, you never forget your first time. It was like no other chocolate I had ever tasted. Rich, smooth, strong – a world away from the Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and the other chocolate I had been brought up on.

Since its introduction Fairtrade has gone on to become an established part of many consumers’ shopping. It has extended from cocoa and chocolate to cover a multitude of products including coffee, wine, fruit and textiles. It rests on a simple concept: helping producers in developing countries achieve better trading conditions and promote sustainable farming by paying them a fair price for what they produce. But now it seems that Fairtrade is under threat…

The history of Fairtrade

Fairtrade took off as an idea in the 1980s. People in Europe were becoming aware that small farmers in the developing world were being ripped off – there is no other phrase for it – by a grossly unfair global commodity trading system which perpetuated poverty and penalised the poor. In 1992, a group of British charities, including Oxfam, picked up on the idea and set up the Fairtrade Foundation.

25 years on the Foundation’s certification scheme, which guarantees a minimum price to farmers, has become part of the commercial mainstream. In the UK, where Fairtrade is at its most popular, around 80% of people are said to recognise the distinctive blue and green logo. Worldwide, Fairtrade is now a £2bn a year operation, supported by governments, churches, celebrities and – most importantly – supermarkets.

The threat from UK supermarkets

Chief among those supermarkets in the UK has always been Sainsbury’s – long a champion of the Fairtrade scheme. But now it seems that the £23bn a year retailer is planning to set up its own ‘fairly traded’ certification scheme, which could spell the beginning of the end for Fairtrade.

Threat on fairtrade from UK Supermarkets

Sainsbury’s say this is “not a move aimed at increasing profits,” but so that they can offer farmers support on adapting to climate change, which is not offered by the current Fairtrade scheme. I leave you to form your own judgement on that one…

So Sainsbury’s will no longer label its Gold, Red and other bestselling own brand teas as ‘Fairtrade:’ Instead, they will be ‘fairly traded.’ The strong suspicion is that Sainsbury’s will then roll out a similar scheme for other products such as coffee and fruit.

In another blow to the Fairtrade scheme, Tesco has announced that they will move their own-label coffee from the Fairtrade scheme to another ethical certification scheme, the Rainforest Alliance. This is likely to happen in 2018 and again, it seems inevitable that Tesco will extend the scheme to other products after starting with coffee.

Criticism of the supermarkets

Both supermarkets have been widely criticised for the moves. Writing recently in the Daily Telegraph the heads of seven charities, including Oxfam and Christian Aid, have urged Sainsbury’s to reconsider their move, claiming it will undermine 25 years of progress towards fair treatment for producers in the third world. Their letter said that,

“The standards [of the new scheme] are unclear and farmers and producers may no longer be able to decide themselves directly how money raised is spent to help their community.”

That certainly chimes with Sainsbury’s specific action on climate change: they appear to want to dictate how payments to producers are spent. A spokesman for the company said,

“A tea farmer in Malawi could have his entire crop wiped out by climate change, which is bad for him and bad for UK consumers. Our new scheme will offer advice on how to mitigate such risks.”

More direct criticism came from Sophie Tranchell, managing director of Divine Chocolate, a highly-successful ethical trading company part-owned by tens of thousands of cocoa farmers in Ghana (warning – if you are a chocoholic you had better not click on that last link!) “This move by Sainsbury’s represents a tip in the balance back to the powerful retailers,” said Sophie. “Cocoa farmers are now fearful of what the future holds.” With Cadburys having pulled out of the Fairtrade scheme last year – after seven years of displaying the Fairtrade logo – in favour of its own sustainability programme, Cocoa Life, you can understand her concerns.

Fairtrade’s success story

Fairtrade – and the general move towards ethical trading – has been an unlikely success story. Fairtrade continues to grow worldwide, especially in South East Asia and Eastern Europe. It now benefits 1.6 million farmers around the world, has 1,240 certified Fairtrade producer organisations in 75 countries and last year a record £150m was sent as premium payments to producer groups. Moreover Fairtrade has given an impetus to a more general move towards ethical trading. We as individual consumers cannot do anything to make sure African farmers receive a fair price for the produce or that the clothes we wear are made by people paid a fair wage and working in humane conditions. But as a collective body, buying products that have a recognised ‘brand’ like Fairtrade, we can make a difference.

Now, these moves by the UK supermarkets threaten all that. If Sainsbury’s and Tesco press ahead with their planned changes, where will that leave the consumer? ‘Confused’ is probably the answer, and it is difficult to escape the feeling that may be what the supermarkets intended. With the original Fairtrade logo, you knew that there was consistency: you could be certain that the growers and producers were getting a fair deal. But how do we compare Sainsbury’s ‘fairly traded’ to Tesco’s ‘Rainforest Alliance’ to Cadbury’s ‘Cocoa Life?’ The answer is that we don’t – or do we wait until someone launches an ethically traded comparison site? None of the major UK companies concerned emerge from this with any credit.