The Soil Association, the main regulator of the organic industry in Britain, has launched a pilot project to help shoppers identify organic produce which has been ethically traded. A handful of licensees in the scheme will carry a symbol showing that their organic produce meets additional standards, for example that the workers and the farmer have been fairly treated.
This summer, the first products in the pilot - white flour and a breakfast cereal from Doves Farm Foods - went on sale.
Consumers may assume that organic produce has been ethically traded. Most organic farmers are already committed to human rights and social justice, principles which are recognised in international organic standards. But as the organic market has expanded and larger traditional operators have come in, there are concerns that these principles are being diluted.
"Whereas the pioneers involved had a philosophical perspective, we are now seeing people who are moving into the organic market on a commercial basis without sharing the principles," says Martin Cottingham, marketing director of the Soil Association.
As organic production outstrips demand, there are also fears that organic farmers are being squeezed, with some not even covering their production costs.
"Prices have come down and organic producers are really suffering as a result of that, not only in developing countries but in developed countries and in particular in the UK," says Francis Blake, the Soil Association's standards and technical director. "Fairtrade is restricted to a number of products from developing countries and we felt the problem was much wider than that."
The Soil Association initially held talks with the Fairtrade Foundation about launching a joint label. Harriet Lamb, the executive director of the Fairtrade Foundation, says: "There is a shared agenda about changing the way food is produced and traded for the better. Both are really helping create and tap into rising consumer concern. What both organisations offer is traceability. We can take you back to the farmer, although in a different way."
There is much that the two movements have in common. Many organic farmers have social concerns and Fairtrade farmers are not allowed to use the most dangerous agrichemicals and are encouraged to go organic.
The switch can benefit them by allowing them to access niche markets or demand higher prices. Some use the Fairtrade premium they receive for their produce to invest in environmental projects.
Cafédirect, the UK's largest Fairtrade hot drinks company, has several organic products and is about to launch a new single origin gourmet organic coffee from Mexico called Palenque. Helen Ireland, the company's corporate communications manager, says that many Fairtrade growers have already been using traditional or organic methods but have not been certified because it is expensive to convert and meet the official standards.
Lamb agrees it is not always easy for smallholders to go organic and said the Fairtrade priority is on changing the lives of farmers in developing countries and giving them a better deal. In the end the Fairtrade Foundation decided not to launch a combined certification with the Soil Association, thinking it would be better to keep its focus on tackling absolute poverty in developing countries.
Lamb says: "You would have to have such different standards to address the situation in the UK that it would no longer be what we hold as the heart of fair trade. It would confuse the public who have come to see our mark as being representative of farmers in developing countries.
"You might find that Mr Farmer in the UK is in fact the best ethically in the whole of the UK and is therefore up for the Soil Association mark, but is in fact relatively wealthy. He may treat his suppliers fantastically, but is not himself in any way disadvantaged. Then it would be muddling for the public and very different from our objectives."
Craig Sams, the chair of the Soil Association's board of trustees and the founder of Green & Black's, whose Maya Gold chocolate was the first product to carry the Fairtrade mark, says: "I think we had all hoped there wouldn't be a separation between Third World and developed world standards. But it is inevitable that because organic farmers in the US and Europe work in a very protected environment with subsidies it would have confused the meaning of Fairtrade as a developing world standard."
Michael Marriage, founder and managing director of Doves Farm Foods, whose white flour and a breakfast cereal called Biobiz have already passed the ethical trading standards and are carrying the label, believes there will come a time when the two systems will have to blend together.
Located on the Wiltshire/Berkshire border, Doves Farm Foods was established in 1978 and produces flour and cereal-based foods. Now all 122 hectares are registered with the Soil Association. Marriage found that his company already met most of the standards in the pilot scheme for ethical trading but he did have to change a few things, for example by introducing long-term contracts.
"Organic land and trade in this country is minute but has had a dramatic effect on other farmers and changed the whole perception of agriculture," Marriage says. "I think the same thing will happen with the ethical trade, once it becomes mainstream. There is nothing like pressure on supermarkets from consumers."
David Croft, head of Co-op Brand and Technical, says the pilot scheme was something his company would look at in more detail for their products.
Croft, who sits on the Soil Association's standards panel, says: "Our point of view is very clear. Consumers increasingly are looking for products which deliver more than what it says on the box, and want independent evidence that they deliver on organic standards. Increasingly people are taking the same perspective on ethical trade issues. The key thing about the trial is what it is doing is raising the issues and getting them onto the wider consumer agenda so that large retailers and manufacturers have to start to address them."
The organic ethical trade mark
The standards in the Soil Association's pilot project aim to ensure fair and equitable trading and employment relationships, together with socially responsible practices, in the organic foodchain.
There is no requirement for a "social premium" but operators should be able to substantiate any additional social and welfare claims made in advertising and labelling.
Only products containing a minimum of 95 per cent by weight of their agricultural ingredients which have been produced and traded in accordance with these ethical trade organic standards can carry the label "ethical trade organic".
The trading relationship between producer/supplier and purchaser should be long-term and based on mutual advantage, including price stability. There should be an adequate return to cover cost of production and return on investment.
Operators must meet ethical employment conditions to ensure that acceptable living wages are paid, hours of work are not excessive, working conditions are decent and that the workforce is empowered.
Operators must ensure they makes a positive social and cultural contribution beyond their legal obligations.Reuse content