Sales of certified Fairtrade products – from food to flowers – are soaring despite the recession, as the price gap with other goods shrinks
Have you eaten a banana today? Last year Britain imported an extraordinary 4bn bananas from some of the poorest parts of the world. But in a triumph for campaigners, one in three bananas consumed in this country is now certified as Fairtrade, guaranteeing fair prices for farmers.
While sales of organic food are sagging, Fairtrade is booming. Sales in 2012 were £1.57bn, up 19% on the year before.
In what has mushroomed into a mainstream sector, more than 4,500 items registered with the distinctive Fairtrade mark are on sale in UK supermarkets and independent shops to help ethically minded consumers do their bit to ensure fair and transparent pricing through the supply chain.
Few people realise that Britain leads the world on Fairtrade. The label now accounts for 10% of all tea sold in the UK, just over 8% of all roast and ground retail coffee and 12% of chocolate. Last year Britons drank 2bn cups of Fairtrade coffee, 3.2bn cups of tea and chomped their way through 1.3bn Fairtrade bananas.
The Fairtrade Foundation‘s new chief executive officer, Michael Gidney, says: “Fairtrade sales continue to confound expectation in the midst of the current tough economic climate. The UK public has developed a lasting appetite for food and goods traded on fairer terms with producers, and forward-thinking businesses are responding energetically to this by providing a wider range of products.”
Despite this progress, Fairtrade still has a long way to go, accounting for as little as 1.5% of the overall UK food and drink market.
The foundation is on a mission to dispel the idea that Fairtrade-stamped goods are automatically more expensive than their counterparts. Gidney says economies of scale resulting from the arrival of major corporate players and brands such as Cadbury, Nestlé and Starbucks mean that price premiums once passed on to the consumer can now be absorbed within the business.
A Guardian Money survey using mysupermarket.com found that in many product categories – for example, coffee and chocolate – both cheaper and more expensive comparable conventional products flank Fairtrade products on supermarket shelves.
The Co-operative supermarket chain has been at the forefront of developing mainstream Fairtrade products for its shelves. Since first backing Fairtrade in 1998, and introducing the UK’s first Fairtrade bananas in 2000, the Co-op has grown into the UK’s largest Fairtrade retailer, notching up a 20% sales increase last year.
Brad Hill, Fairtrade manager at the Co-op, says: “There is a perception that people still pay a premium for Fairtrade but that is no longer the case. This month we became the first retailer in the UK to switch all own-brand bunches of standard roses and single-stem roses to Fairtrade, sourced from Fairtrade-certified growers in Kenya. We kept the price the same – £5.”
But bananas tend to remain an exception, because small-scale growers cannot hope to compete with non-Fairtrade products sourced from low-wage, high-chemical-use plantations. For example, in Asda, Fairtrade bananas work out at 20p each, compared with 15p for regular bananas.
Sales of cocoa, sugar and bananas have all enjoyed significant growth – with increases of 21%, 35% and 15% respectively over 2011 figures – although coffee, tea and cotton have seen flatter sales. That may have something to do with the remaining price differentials: Waitrose Fairtrade coffee is nearly double the price of its Essential non-Fairtrade coffee. But Tesco’s Clipper Fairtrade tea bags are now just a few pence dearer than an equivalent box of PG Tips.
How are farmers benefiting? Fairtrade says it is helping 1.24 million people – farmers and workers – across more than 66 developing countries. It says it guarantees a fair price and a brighter future for growers. As well as getting a fair price for their crops, they receive a Fairtrade premium that is put back into their farms and communities for the benefit of themselves and their families.
But the movement is not without its critics. Some on the left argue that Fairtrade has sold out to the major brands, while those on the right, such as the Institute of Economic Affairs, say Fairtrade is just another brand with an exaggerated sense of self-importance, and is not in a position to help all farmers.
Fairtrade is confident that this year will see another strong rise in sales, especially in the chocolate category. Mars’s Maltesers brand is now Fairtrade, as is Cadbury’s Bubbly and the full range of Green & Black’s chocolate. Growth in sugar sales has been boosted by Morrisons switching its own-label range to Tate & Lyle Fairtrade sugar and Ben & Jerry’s completing the conversion of its full range to Fairtrade. At the same time, enterprising Fairtrade companies such as Divine chocolate, Cafédirect, Traidcraft and Equal Exchange have brought out attractive new products.
The Fairtrade Foundation says 2013 is already off to a good start, with businesses such as Divine launching its Bee Happy range and Nestlé extending Fairtrade to two-finger Kit Kats, nearly trebling the company’s purchases of cocoa and sugar on Fairtrade terms.