The world according to fair trading

Third World producers are starting to get a fairer deal, says Meg Carter
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Ethical concerns about the products and services we buy cover a wide range of issues, including fair trading and impact on the environment. Consumer demand is driving a number of initiatives that are designed to help consumers make informed choices.

"Green" claims were the first on the scene, with claims such as "ozone friendly" and "CFC free". However, legislative change has made many of these claims obsolete - CFCs have now been banned from all aerosol products in the UK, for example.

A second generation of environmental schemes focuses more specifically on selected groups of products: how they were made, and their impact on the environment. A number of endorsement schemes are now run independently, with widespread support from industry:

The Soil Association symbol is used to endorse organically produced food. For more information, call 0117 929 0661

The Forest Stewardship Council is an independent body monitoring forests, set up with the World Wildlife Fund. The FSC symbol is used to endorse wood and wood-based products from properly managed sources. For more information, call 01686 412176

The Marine Stewardship Council was recently launched to develop a symbol for fish originating from properly managed stocks, also with the WWF. Unilever has made a commitment to the scheme and will develop incentives for sustainable fishing. The company has also pledged to phase out the use of fish oil from European sources in 120 product lines. Last week, Sainsbury also pledged its support. For more information, call the WWF on 01483 426444. Fairtrade labelling denotes products produced to approved working conditions, including wages, hours and environment. For more information, call 0171 405 5942.

Nike is the latest in a growing line of companies eager to be seen to be standing up for workers' rights in Third World countries. Last week the sportswear giant was reported to have signed a code of conduct on employee practices around the world. Closer to home, British supermarkets are attempting to do the same. But for the consumer with a conscience, shopping ethically is not as simple as it sounds.

"Fair trading" is the term widely used to describe buying and selling products made by people working in decent conditions, and paid a fair wage. It is the idea behind the Fairtrade Foundation (FF) which, with the backing of voluntary organisations including Christian Aid, has developed the Fairtrade marque - an endorsement guaranteeing that Third World production of an item has met certain ethical standards, has been systematically checked and is regularly monitored.

So far, there are only a handful of Fairtrade products available in the UK. The best known are Cafe Direct coffee, Clipper tea and Maya Gold chocolate. The reason is the investment needed properly to research and source the products, explains Phil Wells, director of Fairtrade Foundation. "Before a Fairtrade product can be launched, we need to form effective partnerships with local farmers; this takes time. It is impossible to apply the same standards for different products made by different processes in different countries."

In spite of this, support for fair trading is growing. Last month, the Shadow overseas development minister, Clare Short, launched an ethics charter, calling for "ethical purchasing which guarantees decent employment and environmental conditions". Meanwhile, most of the major supermarkets now stock Fairtrade goods. And shoppers are demanding ever more information about the products they buy, says Andrew Simms, communications manager at Christian Aid, which is campaigning for a supermarket charter for the Third World.

"When the food on your dinner table was growing in Kenya or South America just 24 hours before, perceptions of where home begins and ends inevitably change," he says. Small wonder, then, if supermarkets are now working to develop their own fair trade codes of conduct for dealing with suppliers. The reason is simple, according to Sainsbury's technical manager Dr Petrina Fridd: "We are responding to public demand."

Sainsbury has been working with Fairtrade Foundation for the past 18 months. It has developed a pilot study involving a detailed survey of production methods for four own-brand products: flowers in Kenya, tea in India, babywear and electrical goods in China. A survey has been conducted in each country and responses are now being analysed. The results will be used to prepare a draft code of conduct which the company hopes to introduce at 5,000 supplier sites early next year.

Meanwhile, Tesco last month announced plans to launch a 70-strong team of ethical advisers to monitor foodstuffs and other products. The company has been working on its own code with Christian Aid since last October, and will soon take part in a pilot study to assess what it needs to measure - and how - to shape its own definition of fair trade. Other chains, including Safeway, insist that ethical trading is now "high on the agenda".

Good news for Third World producers? Maybe. But a number of worries remain. One area of contention is the monitoring procedures required for an ethical code of practice. With different chains developing different strategies, there are calls to set up an independent body to oversee all ethical codes. "There is still no effective way of checking these codes," says Maggie Burns, of the Catholic Institute for Inter-national Relations, which is monitoring developments.

Then there's the matter of just how the supermarket chains will use their fairly traded products. "It's a double-edged sword," Mr Wells believes. "While supermarkets' own fairly traded products can only promote the fair trade movement, it may also lead to them stocking their goods instead of Fairtrade ones." Communication is yet another issue. "Interest in developing codes so far has been great, but some strategies have been at best wishful thinking, at worse PR," Ms Burns says. "Lack of information is a problem. Companies are not yet willing to say `our policy is this, or that'."

Labelling is seen by many as the inevitable end result, but this raises other worries. In order to work, a label must be understood and trusted. Rival fair trade claims could confuse - as has already happened in the "green" arena. Many "environmentally friendly" claims are now seen by shoppers as "misleading, meaningless or even downright dishonest", a National Consumer Council report recently revealed. As a result, many people have given up trying to buy "green" altogether.

One way to overcome this will be closer co-operation between rival chains and interested parties such as the Fairtrade Foundation. So far, however, only Sainsbury and the Co-op have publicly endorsed Fairtrade Foundation's aim to develop an international code. "The supermarkets are extremely competitive and there are tensions between larger and smaller groups," Mr Simms observes. "There is definitely a `first is best' drive amongst larger chains, which are investing resources in developing it and might be reluctant to see smaller chains cashing in."

Which is why Mr Wells is now encouraging household brand names, such as Premium Beverages, to join the cause. Last month Premium, owner of Typhoo tea, signed up to Fairtrade's independent monitoring scheme. "People don't want to buy a fair trade product instead of a better quality household brand," he explains. "They want to know that all the goods they might want to buy have been responsibly produced."

A Life of Facts

Catering venues at which breakfast has been eaten in the last three months, September 1996

Base: 1,027 adults


A cafe or coffee shop 24 A hotel/guest house restaurant 23 A roadside/motorway restaurant 18 A fast food outlet (e.g. McDonald's) 15 While onboard an aeroplane, train or ferry 13 An in-store restaurant (e.g. Littlewoods, Debenhams) 12 Workplace canteen/restaurant 12 A travel terminal (e.g. BR station, airport) 8 Sports/leisure centre 2 Other catering venue 4 Haven't eaten breakfast outside the

home in the last 3 months 21 Only eat breakfast at home 14 Never eat breakfast 4 Don't know 2

Source: BMRB/Mintel

Looking for credit card or current account deals? Search here