Leading article: Fair trade

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The Independent Online

The rise of the Fairtrade brand has been one of the most fascinating commercial stories of recent times. In less than 20 years, Fairtrade products have gone from being a lonely outpost in Oxfam shops, to a staple in almost every high street.

According to the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation, global sales of its products in 2005 soared by more than one-third to £758m last year. Now more than 508 producer groups across 58 countries are certified to supply goods as part of the Fairtrade scheme. And the UK is one of the world's biggest markets, with sales of £195m last year.

No one predicted in the 1980s that a small and expensive brand - that made a bizarre pledge to guarantee minimum prices to producers in the developing world - would one day become one of the major retail growth areas. Fairtrade was seen as a salve to a few western consciences, rather than a serious commercial proposition. Yet that is what it has become.

Of course, £758m is a tiny drop in the ocean in terms of global trade. But the growth of the brand is still immensely encouraging. Many farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America are getting a much better deal because of Fairtrade.

The expansion is encouraging, too, because it gives the lie to the theory that western customers are more interested in low prices than the ethics of food production. The excuses of our political leaders for refusing to open western markets fully to the producers of the developing world grow more threadbare by the day.