Cynicism does the Fairtrade cause no good

There's a certain irony in the Fairtrade Fortnight, which comes to an end this Sunday. In the past, protestors have attacked large-scale brands for their love of the free market and apparent unwillingness to put people before profit in developing countries. Over the past couple of weeks, high-street names from Sainsbury's to Virgin Trains have visibly embraced the Fairtrade mission, offering everything from Fairtrade roses to T-shirts and socks, and, of course, coffee. But it hasn't been enough to suppress a lurking cynicism about the motives of the big boys.

All over the country, events organised by everyone from community groups and retailers to churches have aimed to persuade the public that even a small shift in purchasing habits can lead to significant improvements in the quality of life of producers in the developing world. Not surprisingly the message has fallen on fertile ground - it seems churlish to question the principles of Fairtrade. But questions are being asked about the commitment of corporations that have apparently now seen the light.

Nestle is the name that cropped up most in the meetings I attended, particularly in relation to the recent launch of its Nescafe Partners Blend coffee.

The product, which carries the Fairtrade mark, was greeted enthusiastically by The Fairtrade Foundation. To quote its director Harriet Lamb: 'Here is a major multinational listening to people and giving them what they want.'

However, observant consumers will note that Partners Blend represents just one brand, not a com-pany-wide Fairtrade policy. Nestle carries a lot of baggage regarding the marketing of its baby milk in the developing world, and it is likely to take more than one gesture to appease the more hardline of consumer activists. But at least if its first step is successful, the company may be persuaded to extend its foray into CSR.

To date the growing consumer consensus on fair trade has largely been informed by word of mouth, driven by consumer groups - as well as high-profile campaigns such as MakePovertyHistory (of which The Fairtrade Foundation is a member) and Live 8. The marketing and PR budgets of the multinationals being used to take advantage of an appetite for Fairtrade may give smaller, dedicated producers cause for concern, but it is this spend that will achieve the campaign objective - to Make Fairtrade a Habit.

Even the most saintly of CSR purists can't have it both ways.

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