Fairtrade has done more than perhaps any other organisation to drive understanding of how the food and drink we consume ends up on our table. Yet it’s no longer the only sustainable sourcing method. The news that Sainsbury’s is to develop its own as-yet-unspecified iteration leaves us with mixed feelings. There is an opportunity to make an even greater difference to millions. However, an autonomous system raises difficult questions.

We have extensive first-hand experience of setting up a sustainable sourcing initiative and were the first UK coffee company to use direct trade as our ‘Union Direct Trade’ business model. This means paying well over the Fairtrade minimum price, developing close and long-standing relationships with farmers, helping them increase the quality and yield of their crops, and thus the prices they can command.

Violeta Stevens

Undoubtedly other retailers and manufacturers will follow Sainsbury’s lead. It feels like we are standing before diverging paths - one labelled ‘opportunity’ and one labelled ‘threat’. We have six questions about where the industry goes from here.

First, how will competing initiatives be benchmarked? In a more fragmented landscape, finding clear and concise ways of communicating with consumers will be vital.

Second, how will initiatives be audited? Sustainable claims are easy to make but hard to substantiate. Will manufacturers and retailers audit their own initiatives and supply chains? We feel there should be an industry body dictating, advising upon and measuring best practice.

Third, will there be a renewed emphasis on linking the quality of the produce to its value? A shortcoming of Fairtrade is that simply paying a minimum price doesn’t incentivise farmers to improve the quality of their crop. We’d hope to see any new scheme doing this.

Fourth, will a lack of cohesion affect farmers? Managing and reporting against different standards could create more complexity and potentially increase cost. One solution would be to use existing certification bodies as independent auditors. However, in this scenario, the brand would need to carry the certification cost without being able to pass it on to the consumer.

Fifth, how do we avoid disengaging consumers? In a more complex landscape, there is a danger overall consumer demand for sustainably sourced products will decrease due to confusion.

And finally, will new initiatives be about creating true shared value, or about corporate social responsibility? We’ve experienced first-hand how Union Direct Trade makes a difference to farmers, but it’s also given us access to exceptional quality coffee, growing our business. We feel best practice is currently centred on shared value - initiatives that create value for farmers, for the environment, for customers, and indeed, for us as a business. This places sustainable development at the heart of the business. We believe this model is the future, and will be watching to see whether this is appropriated in any new schemes.

Violeta Stevens is director of supply chain at Union Hand-Roasted Coffee