Since its debut appearance in 1994, the Fairtrade mark - which in the UK is controlled by the Fairtrade Foundation - has moved inexorably into the mainstream.

The foundation says more than half the UK population now recognises its blue and green stamp, and that sales of products carrying the mark are increasing in line with this growing awareness.

In 2006 alone, 45% of homes in Great Britain purchased Fairtrade-certified food and drink products - 1.2million more households than the year before [TNS Worldpanel 52 w/e

3 December].

The same data also shows that consumers have been buying into the concept on a more regular basis, boosting average spend from £11.70 in 2005 to £12.10 in 2006.

"Today's savvy consumer is seeking out Fairtrade-certified products. As a result, some five million farmers, workers and their families across 58 developing countries are able to benefit from participating in and shaping fair trade," says Harriet Lamb, director of the Fairtrade Foundation.

Lamb adds that, while awareness of the movement remained strongest among middle-aged women, the fair trade shopper profile was widening fast, and becoming younger and more diverse each year.

"With more than 15,000 products being sold by 200

companies spanning the range from premium to everyday purchases, it is becoming impossible to pin down the profile of a typical fair trade shopper. They are as diverse as the product offerings, covering all ages and income brackets and with an even national spread," she says.

However, Lamb wants the movement to go further: "Fairtrade has demonstrated its potential to help producers improve livelihoods, strengthen their businesses and benefit their communities, but compared with what is needed in the poorer countries of the world, we have really only begun to make a dent," she says.

By telling the farmers' stories, the Fairtrade Foundation is using this year's Fairtrade Fortnight, from 26 February to 11 March, to explain how informed consumer decisions can help tackle poverty in the developing world.

The word 'informed' is particularly pertinent as, while there is no doubting that consumers are

increasingly more familiar with the concept of fair trade, there is a great deal of concern that not enough has yet been done to educate consumers about the ethos behind it.

"Big-name entries into the sector may have increased awareness of fair trade, but there is still a lack of understanding about what it really means," says Julie Rideout, marketing manager for fair trade tea company Clipper Teas.

"Some think it means they are making a donation to charity. There needs to be more support and eduction in mainstream media explaining fair trade and how it provides a living wage to those working for fair trade producers," she adds.

David Rogers, sales and marketing manager for sustainable coffee brand Lavazza, agrees that more needs to be done to get the message of fair trade's ethos, and quality, across.

"Many consumers still only understand it in a simplistic way and associate fair trade products with poor quality," he says.

Jeremy Torz, a spokesman from Union Coffee Roasters, is even more concerned about consumer perceptions of fair trade.

"Confusion reigns as to what Fairtrade actually is. Consumers in many instances believe it is the brand, and yet it is actually only a certification mechanism to show a producer has met a minimum set of standards."

A year ago there were concerns that the proliferation of different ethical and fairly traded marques on the supermarket shelves could be causing confusion among shoppers.

However, research suggests that consumers are becoming increasingly savvy about the differences.

The primary concern of the Fairtrade Foundation is for the welfare of disadvantaged farmers in the developing world. The Rainforest Alliance (RFA) has a different approach in that it aims to protect ecosystems and the people and wildlife that depend on them.

Chris Wille, the RFA's chief of sustainable agriculture, believes the different marks provide consumers with "confidence, not confusion".

"The importance to consumers is the independent verification that organisations such as the RFA provide," he says. "It's about making it easier for consumers to make a choice that is better for farmers, workers and the planet."n