The deceptive rise of Fairtrade

SALES OF the products have hit £1.78bn but its not ethics that are driving people’s buying decisions, says Frances Pirie.

Foodservice Footprint P4-1 The deceptive rise of Fairtrade Comment Features  Organic MMR Research Worldwide Frances Pirie Fairtrade Community













Humans are essentially selfish creatures. They focus their attention on things that directly benefit themselves or their immediate family. Issues that affect their local community (town, region, even country) are next most influential. People in distant countries – including Fairtrade farmers – unfortunately fall into the sphere of weakest influence. Looking out for their welfare, particularly in times of economic hardship, comes well down the hierarchy of consumer priorities.


So, why have sales of Fairtrade products risen 14% to £1.78 billion in the past year?


The increase is likely to be a consequence of the proliferation of products carrying the Fairtrade logo than rising demand from consumers. Many people are “accidental” Fairtrade consumers who do not necessarily endorse Fairtrade or even understand what it stands for.


Volume sales figures are largely driven by manufacturers keen to display their ethical credentials and can therefore be misleading. In the UK, entire product lines have been switched to Fairtrade, while all major supermarkets now carry ranges of their own-label Fairtrade products; carrying the Fairtrade logo has become a hygiene factor for certain categories.


There is also a peculiarly British phenomenon in that animal welfare is invariably put before farmers in developing countries. Fairtrade is up against this in the UK.


So where does this leave us?


Consumers identify with simple, easy to understand claims such as “healthy”, “no sugar”, “free from artificial flavours” and so on. While Fairtrade may sound simple, the mechanism behind it is complex, both economically and politically. Consumers are unsure how it works in reality and don’t know specifically what’s in it for them.


Fairtrade also faces competition for consumer attention. The average consumer dedicates less than four seconds to any one product when making a selection from the supermarket shelf. A plethora of different on-pack claims, both health-related and ethical, bombards the potential buyer, making it critical for messaging to be clear, simpleand relevant.


Recognition of the Fairtrade logo among UK consumers is high – but this alone is not enough to cut through the noise of competing claims. Fairtrade needs to be firmly linked in consumers’ minds with a clear, compelling benefit.


In the absence of any concrete benefit for consumers, it is unlikely that Fairtrade will ever become prominent in their hierarchy of considerations. Along with “organic”, it could be argued that this is more a lifestyle choice than a real consumer need.


Nevertheless, there is an opportunity to make Fairtrade more personally relevant for the consumer. Take Cissé Trading, a supplier of Fairtrade chocolate baked goods and beverages, which has taken a small step in this direction, using QR codes on its packaging to direct customers to a Facebook page where they can leave messages for the farmers who grow the ingredients. This brings them closer together, potentially moving Fairtrade farmers into that secondary sphere of influence: community.


Frances Pirie is a director at MMR Research Worldwide.