Why Fairtrade still matters

19 May 2024, 13:00 PM
  • One of the most enduring markers of ethical trading is 30 this year, and more needs to be done to support it, say insiders
Why Fairtrade still matters

When it comes to aligning with customer values, there’s a lot for retailers to unpack. Whether products are organic, or plastic free, sourced from a B Corp, HSFF friendly. These rather contemporary (but important) considerations have led, unwittingly, to Fairtrade messaging being left behind, say some specialist retailers.

As the Fairtrade mark celebrates three decades in 2024, these retailers, the Fairtrade Foundation, and wholesalers and producers making and selling Fairtrade products, say the public needs to be reminded that although supporting British farmers and ensuring food security in the UK is important, we cannot leave behind the farmers overseas.

There are more than 6,000 Fairtrade products available in the UK, grown, picked and packaged by millions of workers across 70 countries as part of nearly 2,000 Fairtrade certified organisations which benefit from stable pricing, community facilities, access to training and more.

They are crucial to getting many of our most-loved day-to-day commodities on supermarket and specialist retailers’ shelves.

Why is it important to stock Fairtrade goods?

“Our mantra, when we started, was we’ll know we’ve been successful when we put ourselves out of business. We always encourage mainstream shops to stock Fairtrade,” says Anne Durnford of The Fairtrade Shop in Suffolk, which has been operating for more than 30 years. She and the other founders felt it was the “right thing to do” to open a store stocking Fairtrade food, drink and other products “to help people exploited by the food we expect to have every day. We had them over a barrel. We felt very strongly those providing for us should have a fair wage and decent working conditions. They should not have to take their children to work with them just to get enough money to live. Why should they live like that, just to give us tea or coffee?”

Over its 30 years of operation, The Fairtrade Shop has expanded to bigger premises, and despite dwindling footfall, Anne says it has some very loyal customers who feel strongly about the ethics of Fairtrade. “More retailers need to add Fairtrade products to their stock to create demand,” she implores. “If it’s there, people will buy it! Our farmers can’t grow coffee and tea and rice. It’s not possible. If we are going to import it, I feel very strongly we should pay the people who produced it for us a living wage.

A spokesperson from the Fairtrade Foundation, said, “Whilst affordability and fair pricing has become increasingly important for people in the UK, it remains essential for farmers and agricultural workers overseas.

“For instance, many farmers across the world rely on the lifeline that Fairtrade provides by setting a Minimum Price and providing Premium to deliver social, business and environmental benefits in the community, which helps them to continue to produce goods amid a cost-of-living crisis and climate emergency.”

Now, more than ever, the Foundation explained, Fairtrade producers need people in the UK to buy their products.

“After the COP27 summit, it struck home how our planet will be a much hotter place in the coming decade,” they continued. “Communities in climate-vulnerable nations will be at the mercy of unpredictable weather events. These include extreme temperatures, devastating droughts, hurricanes and floods.

“Cocoa farmers in Ghana told us during their last harvest that they don’t see a future in the crop because it’s now so difficult to grow. Research backs this up. A Fairtrade report shows us that coffee, banana and tea farmers from the Caribbean and Central America to India are reporting the same problems. Meanwhile 93% of Fairtrade coffee farmers surveyed in Kenya said they already experiencing the effects of climate change and reported more erratic rainfall and an increase in pests and diseases, like thrips and coffee berry disease. This is the future that farmers around the world now face, and it endangers their ability to grow our favourite foods in the future.”

The UK imports approximately 40% of its food, around 15% of which is sourced from low-income countries. “So we, as a nation of shoppers and traders, have a vested interest in a continuous supply of good quality imports. If farming doesn’t pay, there’s no guarantee producers will keep growing cocoa and coffee, for example, and UK shoppers might face a future where these popular products are harder to come by.”

Wholesaler Suma, which stocks a wide range of Fairtrade products said its customers are diverse but, “what unites them is a desire for sustainable and ethical products. There’s probably no single type of Fairtrade shopper, but a wide range of people who want good quality products where the producers are rewarded with a fair price for their work. We see a demand for this in everything from everyday items like tea, coffee and sugar, through to treats like chocolate and handmade gifts.”

Faitrade messaging is important to the company, a Suma spokesperson said. “All Suma’s coffees are Fairtrade certified and organic, and many are grown by worker co-ops. We’re always keen to support our fellow co-operatives, so sourcing our organic coffees from co-operatives from around the world is a great opportunity for us and them. By making the small switch to Fairtrade, we can all support producers in protecting the future of some of our most-loved food and the planet.”

Projects Suma is most proud of include its Cafe Femenino –a ground coffee grown by a cooperative of women producers in Bolivia. They teamed up with other female growers across South America in an alliance that allows them to actively achieve empowerment, build social and support networks, and earn a decent income through the production of their coffee. Members of this project have initiated the creation of The Café Femenino Foundation, which provides direct grants to programmes and projects for women and their families in coffee-growing communities. In addition, a donation for each pound of coffee sold is also made to a women’s crisis organisation in the UK.

The state of Fairtrade sales in the UK

The cost-of-living crisis has undoubtedly squeezed household budgets, and value for money has never been more important. The Fairtrade Foundation says that, in response, its commercial partners have introduced more affordable options so consumers don’t have to compromise on their values. “As a result, consumers continue to back Fairtrade, prioritising environmental and workers wellbeing.”

The Foundation reports sales of Fairtrade goods as being up by 11% in 2022, versus 2021, with an uptick of 7% for wine and 5% for cocoa. Smaller commodities have also shown promising growth, such as a 19% increase in sales of Fairtrade honey, 38% for apples, and 107% for rice.

“British consumers might have faced the sharpest increase in living costs for four decades, but concerns over the environment and the treatment of farmers in poorer countries has fuelled a steady increase in ethical shopping,” the Foundation added.

The challenges of selling Fairtrade

For Charlie Bridge, a partner at Fairer World in York, which has been operating for nearly 30 years, it can be difficult to get hold of some items he believes customers would buy, such as Fairtrade biscuits or muesli. The more retailers ask for these products, he adds, the greater the buying power nationally, which could lead to greater choice for everyone.

Anne agreed. “We’re finding it more difficult to get hold of some things now. We used to have a good range of dried fruit and sultanas, but we can’t get them any more because there’s not enough demand. We really need to create that demand.

Charlie added that a drop in footfall around town centres poses one of the greatest threats to the Fairtrade movement, as shoppers (erring towards big, out-of-town supermarkets) aren’t necessarily being exposed to the volumes and quality of Fairtrade products they would see in a specialist retailer.

It’s important, Charlie said, that these specialists and other retailers, from farm shops to delis and food halls, continue to champion and promote Fairtrade because “everyone in society benefits from living in a society which tries to put the values of fairness central to its being.”

Inspiring customers to buy Fairtrade

Retailers need to tell shoppers about their Fairtrade lines, and the stories of the people behind the products, said the Fairtrade Foundation. And these conversations should happen year-round, not just within Fairtrade Fortnight in September.

Telling consumers about the “difference Fairtrade makes to the stability provided by long term trading relationships, fairer incomes, plus the impact of the Premium payments in their communities enabling farmers to tackle climate change and other challenges to protect their crops makes a strong case for buying Fairtrade.”

Suma said that understanding of Fairtrade is probably higher than for other standards. “It’s been around for a while and has been promoted well. From a consumer’s perspective, though, they probably don’t need to know the ins-and-outs of Fairtrade, it’s most important that there’s an understanding that by buying Fairtrade, the producers are getting a fair price. The important thing is ensuring that consumers know the difference between the Fairtrade marque and other standards established by brands themselves.”

Suma said arguably the most important way for Fairtrade to evolve is for it to become more mainstream so that larger brands embrace it, and the wholesaler is already seeing evidence of this happening. 

“Retailers can make the most of Fairtrade products in a range of ways – including allocating space for Fairtrade items with some additional information in window displays, at the tills and in other prominent spaces. The Fairtrade Foundation has great materials available to download and order. Tastings, giveaways, competitions and special offers on Fairtrade products are a good way to gain footfall too.”

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