The tsunami in the Indian Ocean led to an outpouring of public generosity that astonished many. At the Fairtrade Foundation we were less surprised. Every day we see how the public will act when they know they can make a difference to the lives of people in developing countries.
Too often we in the UK are largely disconnected from the lives of people in developing countries who produce our food. So when offered foods at low prices, we scoop them up with glee.
But when people hear about the farmers who grow cocoa or bananas but still cannot afford to send their children to school - and know there is a simple way to make a difference - they respond enthusiastically. As more people become aware of Fairtrade, learn about the positive impact for producers, and see more products available, the Fairtrade content of shopping trolleys is rising dramatically.
Naturally, individual brand characteristics play a role in consumer choices. But people also look for the Fairtrade mark precisely because they want farmers in developing countries to have an all-round better deal.
A 2004 Mori poll put recognition of the mark at 39%, with 86% of Fairtrade shoppers saying the independent assurance it provides is important to their decision. People trust the guarantees behind the mark - that farmers will gain a stronger position in world markets, are able to sell more directly, and receive a fair and stable price with a premium to invest in community, business or environmental programmes.
In 2004, sales grew 51%, reaching an estimated £140m. Strong growth in core categories such as coffee and bananas, together with new product areas such as wine and flowers, meant Fairtrade far outpaced market trends.
TNS Superpanel data shows that more than 22% of UK households bought Fairtrade bananas in 2004 - 29% up on the year before.
Some 500 retail lines now carry the Fairtrade mark - a number set to rise further as companies see the opportunity to do good business as well as deeds.
Sales in Sainsbury doubled when Ehrmanns put the mark on wine from a Chilean co-operative.
Britain leads the world in Fairtrade sales but growth in other countries is strong, totalling $500m in 2004. As a result,
producers received $500m more than they would have through conventional sales. That’s giving five million farmers, workers and their families in 49 countries regular income, clean water and healthcare.
Fairtrade is not without its critics, who have blamed the guaranteed minimum price for coffee oversupply, ignoring the fact Fairtrade is a market-responsive mechanism, with trading companies only buying as Fairtrade what they need to meet consumer demand. Most coffee farmers depend on the crop for their livelihood, so when prices collapse, the only way to keep a roof over their heads is to squeeze more production out of their land.
By contrast, the Fairtrade price enables farmers to invest in improving quality and move into added-value markets. They can also diversify as Windward Islands banana farmers are doing with Fairtrade coconuts.
Fairtrade is beginning to raise overall standards of what is socially acceptable in trade. So the Foundation welcomes the increasing number of initiatives that seek to improve the situation of producers.
However, we are concerned if those schemes make claims on packaging. We are wary of shelves becoming cluttered with claims, some not independently verified, some addressing only legal minimums. The danger is that bamboozled consumers will shrug first in confusion, then in cynicism. Nobody gains if that happens. It’s surely better to go that extra mile and meet Fairtrade standards. Then you have something of substance to shout about.