Ethical Trade: Is Fairtrade losing its edge?

Fairtrade Fortnight kicks off next month, but as more big brands jump on the ethical bandwagon, is the Fairtrade movement in danger of being diluted, asks James Curtis.

Sales of Fairtrade products burst through the psychologically important £100m barrier last year. There are now around 500 Fairtrade products available to consumers, compared to just 130 in 2003. Not only are Fairtrade products achieving growth in otherwise flat sectors such as instant coffee, there are also great reputational benefits by getting involved. The business maxim of 'doing well by doing good' has never been more appropriate.

However, the success of Fairtrade presents PROs with a problem. In its early days, PR had a crucial role in informing consumers about the concept, and demonstrating how it benefited growers and their communities. But now, with so many products on the market - among them roses, jam, wines, footballs and fashion - is the Fairtrade edge being lost?

Harriet Lamb, executive director of Fairtrade Foundation, the charity which promotes fair trade and fairtrade products, thinks not: 'The more Fairtrade grows, the more it strengthens the concept, bringing in more disadvantaged producers and, from the consumer perspective, making it easier for them to take part. In PR terms, if you have one product, or are stuck in one sector, you're in a weaker position than having a large range that offers consumers an all-embracing way to change world trade.'

While it's hard to argue that more and more Fairtrade products on the market - such as a new Oxfam-backed coffee chain, Progreso, which stocks coffee from the devastated Indonesian province of Aceh - is a bad thing, the possible entry of the multinationals is a different matter. The worry from seasoned Fairtrade operators is that the big brands will jump on Fairtrade's ethical bandwagon, with more concern for scoring easy corporate reputation points then benefiting local producers.

The move by Kraft Foods into ethically-sourced coffee, via a partnership with a New York-based conservation organisation, the Rainforest Alliance, is causing much consternation. The fact that Kraft chose the little-known Rainforest Alliance over the Fairtrade Mark - the world's biggest and most recognisable Fairtrade guarantee which, in the UK is controlled by the Fairtrade Foundation - is evidence, claim critics, that big brands are adopting the clothes of Fairtrade, without actually doing it. People are also annoyed that firms such as Kraft and Nestle, which has long been considering a Fairtrade move but is yet to launch a product, get reams of media coverage for doing little or nothing.

As Lamb says: 'A lot of major international firms are realising they are behind the game on Fairtrade and are desperately trying to catch up.

The shame is that they are catching up with ethical-lite imitations, instead of going all the way with the Fairtrade Mark.' Lamb adds that Kraft's decision to adopt a different ethical sourcing mark confuses consumers: 'If there ends up being a proliferation of Fairtrade claims then, in the end, the public will get confused and end up losing faith in the whole concept.'

Kraft Foods UK and Ireland corporate affairs manager Jonathan Horrell rejects the accusation that its Kenco Sustainable Development coffee - which is only available in coffee shops, hotels and catered workplaces - is an 'ethical-lite' initiative, or that it perplexes shoppers. With more of an environmental protection and sustainability agenda, he stresses that the Rainforest Alliance is not pretending to be a Fairtrade certification, which has a minimum price paid to producers as its key criteria.

'We would never use the term Fairtrade to describe it,' he says. 'We chose the Rainforest Alliance because it covers the economic and social aspects of coffee farming and also emphasises environmental protection.

This move is not about selling more coffee - it's about ensuring coffee supplies are sustainable and that the benefits flow back to the communities that produce it.'

But he admits that the finer points of who does what under which ethical certification makes for 'immensely complex stories and it takes time to communicate them'. So, a certain amount of consumer confusion seems inevitable, and arguably, big firms can gain from it.

With the prospect of greater confusion over Fairtrade credentials, observers think the Fairtrade PR game will change. Mel Young, editor-in-chief of Fairtrade magazine, New Consumer, says: 'If I was a PRO for a Fairtrade product I'd be pushing the line that we are authentic and can prove it.

Looking ahead, I think there's a real danger that big firms will damage the good work done by Fairtrade organisations. If multinationals really understand the value of Fairtrade that's great, but consumers will get upset if they see it as a cheap marketing ploy.'

Longevity of brands

Already, there is evidence that the long-established Fairtrade brands are defending their patch. Cafedirect, for example, which dates back to 1991 and is now the third largest roast and ground coffee brand in the UK, became a public company in 2004, raising £5m through a share issue.

Wendy Richmond, consultant with Honey (formerly Leadbetter PR) which has worked for Cafedirect for the last four years. 'We want to stress the longevity of the brand and the fact that we were a pioneer that helped forge and shape the Fairtrade market,' she says. 'I think consumers are aware of the Fairtrade concept now. We have to build on that and communicate what else we are doing, such as helping farmers build their business.'

Fairtrade chocolate brand Divine, which launched in 1998, is also looking for ways to distinguish itself. The fact that the brand's parent, The Day Chocolate Company is 33 per cent owned by a co-operative of Ghanaian cocoa farmers called Kuapa Kokoo, and that two representatives from Kuapa sit on the Day Chocolate board, gives Day Chocolate MD Sophi Tranchell a powerful PR platform. 'We're in a unique position, as we can push Divine as a brand actually owned by the farmers. As time goes by, and as more benefit flows to the farmers, we get more opportunities to tell stories about individuals and some of the innovative schemes being set up to help communities. Another important tactic is to focus on the quality of the product,' she says.

Phipps PR, which works for Fairtrade chocolate brand Green & Blacks, has scored some notable success by stressing Green & Blacks' heritage in the Fairtrade arena, winning Gold in the Environment category at the 2004 PRCA Awards. Devising a campaign celebrating ten years of Fairtrade Fortnight, Phipps was able to underline that Green & Blacks Maya Gold was the first product to receive Fairtrade accreditation, and also to illustrate the benefits the brand has delivered to its growers in Belize, since 1994.

Debbie Feickert, who leads the Green & Blacks account at Phipps, comments: 'We can keep our message fresh and distinctive by showing the difference we have made, pinpointing the effect on communities, on their education, finance and health. New players coming into Fairtrade can't do that overnight - it's taken us a decade.'

Any companies that think this is a sector where blag and bluster will seduce consumers and competitors into thinking they are committed to Fairtrade will soon discover that only players who are the 'real deal' are likely to be credible to ethically-conscious shoppers.

FAIRTRADE FORTNIGHT

Fairtrade Fortnight, which takes place between 1-13 March, will be supported by 7,500 events around the UK,with everything from taste tests of Fairtrade products in supermarkets and workplaces, to Fairtrade dinner parties and coffee mornings.

Fairtrade Fortnight will be launched on 1 March at HM Treasury with an event hosted by the chief secretary to the Treasury, Paul Boateng, and the Fairtrade Foundation patron, BBC news presenter George Alagiah.

At the reception which will greet guests with Fairtrade wine and fruit cocktails, will be a selection of Fairtrade growers, representatives from NGOs and stakeholders from the UK Fairtrade movement.

The fortnight will also be supported by TV comedian Harry Hill, who will take part in a photocall to promote the Fairtrade Foundation's 'Check Out Fairtrade' campaign.

Hill will pose as a cashier in a Co-op store to raise awareness of the diversity of the 500 Fairtrade products now available.

The 'Check Out' campaign also aims to increase consumers' understanding of what the Fairtrade Mark means, and to convert people from understanding Fairtrade to actually buying products. Hill has supported Fairtrade Fortnight since 2002, when he went to Ghana to visit cocoa and banana producers.

Celebrity wine writer Oz Clarke will also get involved in this year's events, travelling with a BBC film crew to Rwanda to make a programme for BBC1's Heaven and Earth, 39 local BBC radio stations and the BBC's religion and ethics website.

Clarke, who has previously visited Fairtrade wine producers in Chile, will visit the co-operative which supplies Union Coffee Roasters, taste their coffee and see how Fairtrade has helped them.

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