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Is Fairtrade fair game?

Sainsbury’s has suffered a PR fiasco after ditching the label on some of its teas – but there are legitimate questions about whether the certification scheme works. By David Burrows.

Joanna Blythman – the self-proclaimed “thorn in the flesh” of the processed food industry and supermarkets – used her regular column in the Grocer this month to launch a scattergun attack on companies that dare to doubt the Fairtrade approach.

Sainsbury’s was the principal target – the retailer having recently announced that it was replacing Fairtrade certification on some of its teas for a new in-house scheme called “fairly traded”. And it wasn’t just Sainsbury’s that was after a “Fairtrade-lite” option – Mondelēz (owner of Cadbury) and Tesco “are up to the same tricks”, she said. “What a shambles.”

More than 100,000 people have signed petitions urging the retailer to take a leaf out of the prime minister’s book and make a swift and embarrassing about-turn. About 40 MPs have also jumped on the banana-laden bandwagon to urge other supermarkets to “remain with and strengthen their commitment to Fairtrade certification”. The all-party parliamentary group on Fairtrade said last week it wants to meet Sainsbury’s to find out what’s going on.

Blythman isn’t wrong when she calls the whole episode an “almighty PR fiasco” but to suggest – as she does – that it’s the Fairtrade way or the highway is naive. We also need to flip this on its head and ask: is Fairtrade all that it’s cracked up to be?

The organisation rightly deserves credit for setting the tone to fulfil the need for socially sustainable production of some crops – and making this a mainstream issue for the food industry. We are talking £1.65 billion of retail sales in the UK here.

But challenge the Fairtrade Foundation and – as Sainsbury’s has discovered – it doesn’t always play fair.

An example: the tea farmers up in arms about the “fairly traded” initiative are not involved in the pilot, the retailer’s head of media, David Nieberg, told me last week. How many of those thousands of signatories and cross-party pool of (cross) politicians understand how Fairtrade works and, furthermore, have read Sainsbury’s arguments for trying something new?

The meeting with the parliamentary group certainly promises to be a fiery one, with Sainsbury’s having suggested that its scheme is more transparent than Fairtrade’s. It’s also better for farmers, insisted Nieberg, who rejects the principal accusation that the retailer wants only to exert more control over its supply chain. “We are not controlling the money” that farmers receive. “We want to ensure the money gets to the people who need it.”

Does that mean the Fairtrade money doesn’t end up with those who need it? He wouldn’t say. Fairtrade, and its supporters, are adamant that Sainsbury’s scheme is all smoke and mirrors.

“If you don’t provide transparency, no one can hold you to account,” a spokesperson told me. “So if we don’t know the exact detail of what Sainsbury’s has committed to deliver, then the farmers, trade unions, NGOs and the public have no means to hold them to account for their commitments, and it becomes a far less effective system.

“Under the Fairtrade system there are public grievance mechanisms which mean that anyone can make a complaint. What’s more, the standards are all published in full,” she added.

Who do we believe? Time will tell. But the once beautiful relationship between Fairtrade and Sainsbury’s has certainly turned ugly. The retailer’s message is clear: we can’t hang around for the scheme to evolve while the world changes.

Fairtrade isn’t fit for purpose in the 21st century, Sainsbury’s CEO has said – with political upheaval, climate change and global conflicts it needs to try something new to help secure the future of its tea farmers, and thus the tea.

We have heard similar messages before. This is what Nestlé’s head of agriculture, Hans Jöhr, told Footprint back in 2014: “We cannot certify or label people out of poverty.” He went on to suggest that some of the large certification schemes are excellent at marketing but questioned whether they were having tangible, long-lasting benefits on the ground.

These schemes “cannot help farmers be better farmers per se,” he explained. “They don’t consider quality. Some of them are cheating consumers.” He wouldn’t say how, but as I’ve suggested in previous articles, Fairtrade is far from perfect. Fairtrade is currently pushing the message “do it our way or not at all”, Nieberg said.

Sure, we should be suspicious of such a move (and I have no doubt the hype would have been less had this been Waitrose or M&S), but fair trade doesn’t always have to come with a capital F, a logo designed by Soho design agencies or slick marketing campaigns and full-page newspaper adverts. Blythman, more than most, should understand that.

She should also know that what Mondelēz is trying is not the same as Sainsbury’s – a point Fairtrade has been at pains to make. The Cadbury owner deserves a pat on the back and all the kicks in the balls should be reserved for Sainsbury’s chief executive, Mike Coupe.

If consumers think either firm is playing dirty tricks, they could boycott them. More than one in five Brits (21%) have stopped using a brand after a scandal and the impact can often be long-lasting. However, they will come back if things improve or practices change.

A boycott of Sainsbury’s at this point would seem premature, however – the retailer hasn’t done anything wrong. Yet. And even Blythman admits the supermarket chain has done a better job than others to support Fairtrade (without the tea it remains the world’s biggest retailer of Fairtrade goods). So, rather than shoot first and think later, why not wait and see the results?

Sainsbury’s, much like Mondelēz before it, isn’t adjusting its sustainability programme to appease its marketing team (though, ironically, it is possible that the initial embrace of schemes such as Fairtrade by companies was led by a desire to boost profits).

As Stephen Mann, the external communications manager of Mondelēz, told me: “Doing something for a logo makes no sense for a business. You can throw endless marketing budget at a product and if it’s no good, it won’t sell. Sustainability programmes are just like that too.”

Time will tell if this is greenwashing of the dirtiest kind and these companies are in it for themselves alone. However, those that try new approaches to ensure long-term sustainability in their supply chains need to be given a bit of breathing space rather than a beating.

And take note: brands can’t afford to muck about with sustainability these days – in fact, a potential consumer backlash is the least of their worries (though recent scandals surrounding Certified Sustainable Palm Oil show some lessons have been learned).

There wouldn’t be a Mondelēz without cocoa farmers, for instance. Some might say that’s no bad thing (we’d all be slimmer for a start), but what about the farmers – the farmers who are the principal concern for Fairtrade’s very public lashing of Sainsbury’s? What would they do?

The vast majority of consumers rely on supermarkets and major foodservice companies to “do the right thing”. M&S has long said that its customers, for example, want it to do the “heavy lifting” on sustainability. The firm’s new Plan A 2025 shows that it has learned that customers don’t always want to know the ins and outs of every kilo of waste reduced, each tonne of carbon cut or each additional pound farmers receive.

That is why, for years, food companies have used well-recognised schemes such as Fairtrade, the Rainforest Alliance and the Marine Stewardship Council (together with their neat little badges) to show they are doing the right thing. And many will continue to do so – a legacy of the poor track record of some food companies that has affected the reputation of the many.

I am as suspicious of the supermarkets and global manufacturers as the person behind me in the queue at the local greengrocers, but we mustn’t forget that Fairtrade is also firmly in the spotlight here. It’s time for its supporters to stop crying foul play and to start proving that the Fairtrade model works and will work for the long term – economically, environmentally and socially. If it does that, then Sainsbury’s may well think again.