Trading Standards: Will customer now shop for fair play?: Group plans to flag products that are Third World-friendly

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The Independent Online
THE GREEN consumer is about to be joined in the shopping revolution by a new breed of ethical buyer, who will be demanding that products are not so much friendly to the environment as friendly to people.

This is the hope of the Fairtrade Foundation, set up by a consortium of development charities to award a stamp of approval to products that are based on fair trade with the Third World. This autumn, the brands that have received the foundation's blessing will be licensed to carry the 'Fairtrade Mark' on their packaging and in their marketing.

Screening is under way for companies that meet the requirements. Last month hundreds of retailers and manufacturers were invited to apply for the mark, so that Fairtrade could assess their claims and identify the deserving ones. The launch has been delayed pending determination of the criteria for approval.

The companies licensed to use the mark will pay Fairtrade between 0.5 and 2 per cent of turnover on the brands covered.

'Brands that have the mark will have a competitive edge over those that do not - as a growing number of consumers want to buy fairly traded goods. Last year an Oxfam survey of 6,000 adults found that 81 per cent would buy products identified as giving a fair deal to Third World producers,' said Julia Powell of Fairtrade.

Products will be assessed by a panel of experts in international trade policy established by the charities backing the idea: Christian Aid, Cafod, New Consumer, Oxfam, Traidcraft and the World Development Movement. The panel will examine pay rates and employment conditions of Third World suppliers and look into terms of trade to see that fair prices are being paid.

The foundation's initial priority markets are coffee, tea, chocolate and clothing. It hopes to involve mainstream brands, so that the concept becomes a feature of ordinary high street shopping rather than being limited to charity catalogues.

The Fairtrade scheme has been inspired partly by the rapid expansion of environmental labelling. Ms Powell says they have learned lessons from this field, where manufacturers' statements about their own products have all too often been exposed as misleading.

'Consumers are worried that environmental claims that companies make for themselves may be spurious. Because we are independent, the Fairtrade mark will have credibility. Our criteria are very strict. Companies want tough criteria, so that once they have the mark there is no question about their claims,'she said.

The creation of Fairtrade follows the recent success of Cafedirect, a premium coffee marketed by Oxfam and others, which pays South American farmers a much higher proportion of the selling price than other brands. It is available in more than 1,000 outlets, including Safeway and Waitrose.

The foundation would not reveal which companies it was talking on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. However, corporate reaction so far seems to be mixed.

Premier Beverages will apply for the mark for its Typhoo tea brand. It has already drawn up its own criteria for ensuring it only buys from tea estates with comparatively good employment conditions. Early this year it adopted the slogan: 'Caring for tea and our tea pickers'.

Philip Mumby, operations director, said: 'We have had an unprecedented number of letters from consumers saying they are pleased with what we've done. But we recognise the weakness of our own self-certification, so we are looking for independent verification.'

On the other hand, the idea has been rejected by Cadbury, despite the company's Quaker traditions. A spokesman, Richard Frost, said: 'We do not think it appropriate to pay a percentage of our sales to an independent panel of self-selected experts. We believe Cadbury's already has a reputation for being responsible and that reputation is stronger than the Fairtrade mark.'

Ms Powell responds: 'If companies can get away with not applying for the mark, some might try to do so. But once another chocolate manufacturer gets the mark, Cadbury's will probably be saying something else.'

If Ms Powell has her way, the time will come when the Fairtrade mark stands for much more than the reputation of any individual company.

(Photograph omitted)