We are all responsible for how our actions affect the world, that’s why many of us choose Fair Trade. However, how does relate to big corporations, supermarkets in particular? What is the supermarket’s role in Fair Trade? With the recent announcement that UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s own brand tea has dropped Fairtrade in favor of their own label called ‘Fairly Traded’ featured prominently on the box, businesses’ relationship with ethical products has come under media scrutiny. In response to this, there has been huge public kick-back: including petitions, campaigns, store-front protesters, and NGO disapproval.
But what is the problem with the new Fairly Traded scheme? The company claims it is its own extension of Fair Trade, however how can the public trust a company which is monitored only by itself? Many consumers already feel confused by the recent influx of labels, and many feel the movement may be undermined by new labels such as Fairly Traded and Mondelez’s (parent company of Cadburys) Cocoa Life which are confused with true Fair Trade in the mind of the consumer. Food campaigner, Joanna Blythman, said “consumer trust is hard earned and easily lost” and while Fair Trade has had many gains in recent years, these “fair-washed” labels may cause this trust to be lost in consumers who desire straightforward answers to ethical purchasing. These new labels are not held to as high of standards as third party organizations, such as World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) and Fairtrade International (FI). In fact, FI refused to cooperate with Sainsbury’s on the Fairly Traded label because their standards were not high enough for the organization, meaning that millions of workers will not be treated on a fair enough level. The company even asked the producers how they felt about the switch, yet went ahead with the plan even after facing strong opposition. In contrast to the true Fair Trade model any benefits handed down to the workers are not determined by those benefitting, rather by Sainsbury’s as a corporation. If they have projects they wish to see fulfilled they must apply for grants from the company. Some have called the label disempowering, or even colonialist.
In addition, Sainsbury’s is a leader in the UK for the adoption of Fair Trade by large supermarkets, and many are worried that they will take steps backwards in all their product lines, or that other companies will follow suit. For now, Fairly Traded will only apply to Sainsbury’s own-brand tea, but many believe that the program serves as a pilot to be rolled out further in the future. Already since Sainsbury’s announcement, Cadburys has announced that they will shift all their products to their own program as well, and Tesco moved their labeling from Fairtrade to Rainforest Alliance, which is much more focused on environmental criteria than social. However, other retailers have strengthened their commitment to FT in the wake of all this, including Waitrose and Co-Op– both known for their dedication to ethics.
At this time, supermarkets’ relationship with FT is primarily monetary. There is a shift in consumers, especially younger generations, who now call for stronger ethics out of the brands they buy. Due to this public pressure, big business is behaving better, offering more FT products, both certified and not, than ever and running ethical campaigns, however it is mostly superficial. When questioned about their buying practices, consumers still cite price as their primary drive to shop at one place over another, which means that many supermarkets put on the front of being ethical, meanwhile putting pressure on their supply chains to become ever cheaper, often at the detriment of the workers. According to Ethical Consumer 46% of supermarkets have no policy for buying certified cocoa even though it is well known for the exploitation of child workers, and 31% don’t have any policies for the purchase of palm oil, notorious for deforestation. This is where developing own labels comes in: giving corporations the ability to stamp their products with claims of ethicality which they may determine themselves.
However, we are increasingly proving that FT is lucrative. With its entrance into supermarkets the movement became mainstream and gained public backing: proven by the outraged response to (including the Don’t Ditch Fairtrade Campaign among others) its replacement on shelves. In the UK the Fair Trade market has continuously grown 8% each year, now worth £1.5 billion. The FT Organisations and its public supporters will continue to fight to keep true FT on the shelves, and to educate consumers on the difference between audited (such as WFTO and Fairtrade Intl.) and own-brand (such as Fairly Traded and Cocoa Life) labels.
Please help us back the movement by showing support and purchasing from trustworthy FT labels, by speaking out and telling companies that moving away from FT is a step in the wrong direction, and through becoming an Agent for Change. When in doubt, look for our label!