Given Ben & Jerry's vocal ethical standpoint since its humble beginnings in 1978 consumers would be excused for thinking that the ice cream supplier had been making Fairtrade products for years.

Yet the company's Fairtrade vanilla ice cream, launched this week into the UK, Ireland, Belgium and the Netherlands, with other European markets to follow, is the first product in its portfolio to be made up of Fairtrade sugar and vanilla (it does have some lines in the US that contain fair trade coffee) and the first ice cream in Europe to carry the Fairtrade mark.

The reason it has taken the company so long is that Fairtrade vanilla has just become available in the quantities required for large-scale manufacture, according to one of the company's founders Jerry Greenfield.

But now that it has got the ball moving, you can expect it to embrace the movement with its usual vigour. Two more products are scheduled for next year and the company has pledged a long-term commitment to introduce as many ethically sourced ingredients into its range as possible.

Greenfield says: "A big part of what we do is make ice cream and source ingredients. Fairtrade ingredients, where you a paying a premium to the farmers to support themselves, is a way of trying to create sustainable farming practices. It's nice because you get a delicious ice cream and you do it in a way that you feel good about."

Ben & Jerry's is certainly no stranger to promoting ethical sourcing, whether it be for environmental or social reasons. In the US it works with a bakery that employs people who are "economically disadvantaged", in Greenfield's words, and has an ice cream flavour called Rainforest Crunch, designed to help the rainforest become as profitable when harvested sustainably as it is when it is burnt down and turned into cattle ranches. Fairtrade is just another step in the right direction, he says: "It is the next step in how we comprehensively source all our ingredients. It is not a one-off."

The fact that Ben & Jerry's has come on board will no doubt help the fair trade movement in the UK, of which the Fairtrade Foundation is the biggest proponent. The UK market for Fairtrade products is more than £200m, though not all lines have proved runaway successs. Sales of Nestlé's Fairtrade coffee Partners' Blend have not been as strong as other lines in the category despite it having the backing of the UK's leading brand.

Dorothy MacKenzie, director at brand agency Dragon, says that consumers look at the issue of fair trade on an emotional, rather than economic, level. Companies, such as Ben & Jerry's, that have a strong ethical heritage, will do very well, while companies that haven't historically taken an ethical standpoint may struggle, she says.

"Because it is such an emotional thing, for brands that have that clearly identified human aspects already in place and have very credible values there is a good fit with fair trade. I don't think it means other companies without the background can't do it, but they have to work harder."

In the case of the new ice cream, everyone's a winner, she adds. "The ice cream is a way of helping to further embed fair trade in consumers' minds and it's a good thing for Ben & Jerry's as it shows it is still a pioneering company since the Unilever takeover."