Fairness, a new commodity: Fair trading in coffee and cocoa is catching on in Europe, writes Lisa Vaughan

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The Independent Online
GETTING ecologically friendly products into the supermarkets has been a huge challenge for environmentalists. Now the big retail food chains in Britain are being asked by more and more of their customers to stock goods that are friendly to the people that produce them.

The 'fair trading' concept - which seeks to give small producers a fair price for their output and ensure that they work under safe conditions - is several decades old.

But it is only now gaining widespread recognition in Europe, where a growing number of consumers can buy fairly traded products in ordinary supermarkets, not just through Oxfam catalogues or alternative shops.

Last week, the ground-breaking Dutch group that markets a coffee brand guaranteeing a fair price to Third World growers, extended the same principle to chocolate.

The success of the Max Havelaar Foundation in the Netherlands since it launched its coffee seal of approval in 1988 has inspired similar projects in Belgium, France, Switzerland and Germany. In Britain, a fairly traded coffee called Cafedirect is now sold in nearly 1,000 supermarket outlets.

Since world coffee prices plunged in 1989, income to growers in producing countries has been equally depressed. Max Havelaar-licensed roasters buy coffee beans direct from growers' co-operatives in 15 Latin American, African and Caribbean countries.

They guarantee a price to the co-operatives between zero and 10 per cent over the world market price, but never lower than dollars 1.26 per pound for Arabica coffee and dollars 1.12 for Robusta coffee. The world market prices are currently 76c and 58c respectively.

Coffee with the Max Havelaar seal is more expensive than other domestic brands, but after five years it is stocked by 90 per cent of Dutch supermarkets and has a 2.3 per cent market share. It is served in the Dutch parliament and provincial government buildings.

But turning cocoa into packaged chocolate involves much more processing than coffee, and took the foundation 2 1/2 years of research to get its system working.

With six partners in the cocoa trade and chocolate manufacturing industry, Max Havelaar last week launched a batch of new products: chocolate powder, hot chocolate for vending machines, candy bars, assortments of small after-dinner chocolates, and special Christmas chocolates. The sweets are already in 2,000 shops.

The extra income to growers has amounted to 26 million guilders (pounds 9m) since the scheme was established. It's a drop in the bucket compared with the billions of lost income to those countries caused by falling commodity prices, but it is significant to those who receive it.

In Britain, progress with fairly traded goods has been more modest. Cafedirect, a filter coffee launched in 1991 by four non-profit organisations, is now available in many of the big supermarket chains and the group is expected to bring out an instant coffee next year.

Cafedirect buys high-quality arabica beans from small growers' co-ops in Mexico, Peru, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. A big roaster in Kent, which makes own-brand coffee for supermarkets, roasts and packages it.

From each 8oz package of Cafedirect, retailing for pounds 1.55, the growers get 43p - a big improvement over the estimated 12p that growers receive from each pounds 1.50 British consumers pay for commercial coffee brands.

Supermarkets have been curious, but cautious, says Lorna Young of Cafedirect. Since some fairly traded products over the years have been poor quality, they wanted to be sure the coffee would sell, and see if their competitors were selling it, too. Though profits on fairly traded goods are slightly lower than commercial items throughout the production and sales chain for everyone but the grower, Ms Young says: 'They wouldn't do it unless they were making money on it.'

Aid campaigners are working to spread the word about fair trade. Christian Aid has circulated 1.5 million postcards for consumers to hand in at supermarkets, asking managers to carry fairly traded goods from the Third World.

The Fairtrade Foundation is a consortium of aid organisations that aims to award a Fairtrade Mark to products offering a fair deal to Third World consumers - but has not found any suitable ones yet.

The group has been looking since May for a mainstream national brand or a supermarket own-brand to put its first stamp of approval on. But retailers have been reluctant to be the first to commit themselves, possibly because they are worried that not enough consumers are interested in the products.

Awareness does seem to be growing. An NOP poll taken last year showed that 84 per cent of people interviewed would welcome fairly traded products, and that 74 per cent would pay more for them.

(Photograph omitted)

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