Of course the idea of fairtrade (or "right-on" as it was always called) tea and coffee is nothing new. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the commitment of many was stretched to breaking point when decidedly dodgy fund-raising tea and coffee from Bangladesh and Nicaragua was drunk through clenched teeth - and ditched at the earliest opportunity - at solidarity meetings up and down the country.
What is new, however, is the way in which campaign and consumer groups have now got their marketing act together; and, more significantly, the way they have come up with products that can compete on quality with those from multinationals.
Today's slick fairtrade movement started in 1992 when the Fairtrade Foundation was formed. Set up by a number of church-backed development agencies and Third World pressure groups, the Foundation aims to break the cycle of poverty into which vast numbers of Third World farmers find themselves caught, by marketing products in the UK that have met a range of standards set by the Foundation and which accordingly carry the Fairtrade Mark.
These standards include guarantees on minimum wages for workers and certain environmental criteria. But as far as the workers are concerned, perhaps the most significant guarantee the Foundation offers is that they are paid a price for their products that never falls below an agreed minimum. In this way, the producers are insulated from the notoriously violent swings of the world's commodity markets, which can so often mean disaster for small independent producers around the developing world.
By trading directly with the producers, the Foundation aims to radically change the way in which the developed northern countries trade with the developing south and, in the process, improve life for the producer. "It is our aim to let farmers control their own destiny through the marketing of their cocoa," says Mr Ohemeng-Tinyase, managing director of Kuapa Kokoo, the farmer-owned company in Ghana that supplies the cocoa for Divine.
A premium is built into the guaranted minimum price; this is paid for by consumers in this country, and is then passed directly onto the workers and producers. "Through the premium on the cocoa, the income of our farmers is increased and they can then afford to start community projects such as providing drinking water for their village and improving their housing," says Mr Ohemeng-Tinyase.
In the case of Divine, the premium works out at around 20 pence over a similar-sized, similar-quality chocolate bar, but Pauline Tiffen is confident this shouldn't harm sales. "People are increasingly realising that what you pay for is what you get, and we've worked really hard to produce good-quality milk chocolate."
A similar approach has helped Cafedirect coffee become the UK's fairtrade market leader. With distribution in most supermarkets, and a 55 per cent growth in sales last year, its success demonstrates the public taste for ethically sourced products.
But while Cafedirect may have grabbed an impressive four per cent of the UK coffee market in just seven years, set against the bigger picture of attempting to bring about change in an industry which is producing, after oil, the world's most valuable commodity - coffee production is worth eight billion dollars a year and employs seven million farmers - isn't the fairtrade movement just tinkering around the edges? "In the past 10 years, 240 farmers' organisations, representing over half a million farmers in Latin America, have registered with fairtrade groups for coffee alone," replies Rob Harrison, co-editor of the Manchester- based Ethical Consumer magazine. "This is not an insignificant figure, and considering that the fairtrade movement is gaining momentum, there is no reason for doubting that we can involve 20 million farmers within the next 10 years."
Andy Good, from the Edinburgh- based fairtrade company Equal Exchange, agrees that we should not underestimate the current impact of the fairtrade movement. "Sure," Andy says, "quantitatively the effect is small, but the actual impact of products such as Cafedirect is demonstrated by the debate that is beginning to build up around the whole issue."
Pointing out that the Government is these days to be found talking about codes of conduct and ethical trading - the new keywords of the fairtrade movement - Andy concludes that "companies are taking note".
Just how much companies are taking note of these new kids on the coffee and chocolate block can be gauged by their reaction to Clare Short's support, as Labour's Development Secretary, for the Fairtrade Coffee Challenge.
Launched by the Co-operative Bank in June, the challenge was designed to persuade 500 of Britain's biggest companies to offer staff a choice of fairtrade coffee in their vending machines. Since the summer, the big guns from the country's food and drink industry have been lobbying the Government to withdraw the campaign. In particular, they object to the implication that goods which don't carry the Fairtrade Mark are produced in ways that are unfair to the producers.
Martin Paterson from the Food and Drink Federation also rejects one of the major tenets of fairtrade: "It is impossible to impose a particular company's view on how to behave in other countries and societies. The local government must always have primary responsibility for employment conditions". Rob Harrison dismisses this view as being woefully behind the times. "This has been the standard excuse that companies have used since the days of the boycott of South Africa. Of course companies have a responsibility for ethical issues in countries where they operate. By using an Eighties' argument, industry is showing itself to be at first base in the defence of its current practices."
Certainly, the food and drink industry needs to get up to speed on the issue if they are to avoid being outflanked by the ethical consumers' rising star. For with nearly 70 per cent of the UK public claiming that they would pay more for fairtrade products, and an increasing unease at the impact of a globalised world economy, ethical consumerism has at its core a very appealing and seductive marketing message.
"Every individual can take a small step in tackling global problems," says Andy Good, "and buying a fairtrade product is part of that - look how far we've come in just six years."
'Ethical Consumer' magazine can be contacted on 0161-226 2929; the Fairtrade Foundation is at Suite 204, 16 Baldwin's Gardens, London EC1N 7RJ (0171- 405 5942). Their website is at: http:// www.gn.apc.org/fairtrade/Reuse content