Talking Ethically

Harriett Gething, Trade Marketing Manager of Cafédirect, a company whose name is synonymous with the term ‘ethical marque’, is emphatic that the label continues to be powerful communication tool.



According to Harriet Gething, Trade Marketing Manager of Cafedirect, ethical marques will only be powerful as long as there’s a demand for knowledge about the origins of products, and a willingness to buy into the ethics of that particular brand. “It’s true that there are whole hosts of sometimes confusing ethical labels around, however the more people are educated to look beyond the label, the better. In fact, it’s consumer power that drives the success of ethical marques, continually challenging their validity and demanding social, environmental and economic justice,” she says.


Cafédirect actually pre-dates the Fairtrade marque in the UK by three years so is a true pioneer of Fairtrade. It came about as a result of the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989, which sent market prices plunging, putting the lives of millions of smallholder farmers in jeopardy. In response, three coffee growing communities in Peru, Costa Rica and Mexico – each shipped a single container of coffee, loaned on trust, to the UK. The beans were roasted and sold through church halls, charity shops and at local events.


“Now while 100 per cent of our products still carry the Fairtrade marque, we know our work is still not finished. We believe that Fairtrade is merely the starting point and our business model is continuously evolving to meet the needs of both smallholder farmers and consumers for an economically and environmentally sustainable future,” Gething explains. Gething refutes rumbles that ethical marques have been devalued by other types of accreditation such as animal welfare, nutrition and organic, saying: “I would challenge back that all these accreditations are ethical accreditations – and actually all of these campaigns are helping to educate consumers about where and how their products are sourced, which is undoubtedly a positive change. That said, there are important differences between ethical marques (and even between companies and products bearing the same marque), which is getting lost in the confusion.”


She does, however, admit that there may be some confusion about exactly what ethical marques are seeking to accredit in the foodservice industry, saying: “We see more of a ‘surface’ understanding for example as in ‘marques – the more labels the better’ (ie Triple Cert).”


Gething believes the root of ethical trading is not an either/or choice between environment, socio-economic issues, or sustainability; it is all of those and much more. “The beauty of Cafédirect is that we know each of our growers – we understand what challenges they face, be they environmental with increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, social with a need for education, or economic, with increasing numbers of smallholder producer groups needing additional support with pre-finance due to Arabica prices recently reaching at a 13-year high. And because two growers (one representing Latin America, one Africa) sit on our board and many producer groups own shares in the company, they are quick to offer advice to us. It’s a true partnership, and together we are building a truly sustainable business.


“From a supplier’s perspective, ethical accreditation has got us to the point that the UK consumer understands and accepts the basic principles of ethical trading, which is obviously great news. However, in an increasingly crowded market, it’s no longer enough to just have ‘a badge’. Consumers demand value for money – and for us as a brand that means that we’re not only truly ethical but we need to taste amazing too- and for foodservice customers we offer the right marketing support, advice and inspiration.”


Is it helpful to the cause of ethical trading to have so many other supporting marques? Gething says there are two schools of thought on this. “On the plus side, it reflects the huge interest and awareness of the issues faced by farmers in the developing world, on the negative side, there is confusion and saturation in the marketplace,” she says.


Footprint asked whether the appetite for ethical product in the developed world was in any way a ‘burden’ on growers in the developing world? Gething believes not, saying: “A recent Cafédirect trip to Peru would indicate quite the opposite. Our growers see it as a source of pride that their coffee is grown without the use of pesticides and that they are part of a movement that means that they have a say in what happens in the company, a company that helps producer groups to gain access to other markets, offers advice on other means of income, and offers ways to connect with other growers to share best practice advice. And currently, the fact that we maintain long term relationships in a pretty volatile market is a huge bonus. For example, where prices are rocketing, some suppliers may choose to purchase from the cheapest producer group, which means that the better quality, higher priced groups are left with no contract. Cafédirect works with producer groups to secure contracts and pre-finance on the ground, for the long haul.”


Gething goes on to debunk the myth that ethical product is necessarily kind to the environment, explaining: “It is always wise to look into the key points of each marque. For example, the Rainforest Alliance (RA) mark only stipulates that 30 per cent of the whole product must come from RA accredited sources, meaning that the remainder can be sourced from ‘conventional’ farms. And although Fairtrade has some pretty stringent environmental protection regulations, its heart is in people’s ethics. Cafédirect takes a holistic approach to our trading; constantly challenging ourselves to be ethical and sustainable in everything we do – from the wood used to burn the growers’ home fires in Kenya to my journey to the office in the morning.”


With the UK economy in such a parlous state, is a consumer backlash towards ethical trading inevitable? Does she think consumers might start asking “why are we helping ‘them’ instead of promoting our own product and people?”.


Gething answers frankly: “Although Fairtrade sales have remained buoyant during the recession, attracting new producers and brands, it is true that the higher-end brands such as Cafédirect have felt some pain from the economic downturn – in fact consumers were encouraged to trade down to own label products (including Fairtrade) with multi-million pound advertising by the supermarkets.


“However, I think there has been an element of ‘choice trading’ – where people have simply set their ‘ethical’ limits. For example, I might have to buy conventional sausages this week but I’ll always buy Fairtrade coffee and sugar. Also, there’s a reason why the UK consumer has supported Fairtrade in the way that it has (we purchase the largest percentage of Fairtrade coffee versus conventional in the world for example) – it’s a simple mechanic, it’s easy to identify and crucially, by and large, it’s no more expensive than a non-ethical brand.”


Does Gething believe the debate about ethical labeling is really a distraction from the core idea of trading ethically? “To be honest, it’s not something we engage with too much. We set ourselves up to be a force of positive influence on UK businesses, leading the way in true ethical trading. If people want to debate the ethics of a company who only choose ethical products strategically, then that’s a good thing,” she says.


And what about accusations that big, corporate, profit making companies have hijacked ethical trading for their own marketing and promotional purposes? Does she go along with this or does she believe there is a genuine desire to support ethical trading? “I think you’ll have to ask them that question,” she responds. “Only time will tell whether the big brands stick with Fairtrade once the Arabica prices and other similar commodities stabilise. You might also ask, will the big brands move more than just ‘hero’ products into Fairtrade? Only then will we see true commitment to Fairtrade principles.”


Footprint asked Gething whether we are likely to see any move to consolidation in the ethical trading market with marques collaborating to make things easier for growers but she reckons in the short term, there’s not much chance. “That said, several schemes have become members of the ISEAL alliance, which seeks to strengthen effectiveness of the standards, including considering ways to harmonise them. We have already seen some RA and Organic inspections collate the same information at the same time, which is a positive step,” she says.


Which? Magazine is currently campaigning for different marques to get together as joint marques but Gething cannot see that happening because, at least in the short term, it just isn’t practical. “These schemes are market- based mechanisms, they actually compete against each other for market share. This makes co-ordination tricky, even when their visions overlap. Our response has been to support the label we think is most effective for our producer partners, but to go beyond it with our own business model,” she says.