Fairtrade is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the hot beverages category.

According to the Fairtrade Foundation, sales of Fairtrade-certified products reached an estimated retail value of £290m in 2006 - an increase of 46% over the past year. Retail and catering sales for coffee have increased by 39% and tea by 50%.

"It's fast-growing because it addresses important issues, and consumers are becoming more aware of problems for people in developing countries," says Percol's Brian Chapman.

"Consumers are also aware that Fairtrade doesn't mean inferior quality products."

Fairtrade is no longer a niche sector and is becoming more mainstream, with big players such as Unilever now involved. Unilever, the producer of PG Tips, has announced it will purchase all its tea from sustainable, ethical sources. It has asked the Rainforest Alliance to audit its tea suppliers.

"The dramatic rise of ethical coffee and tea was led by smaller companies, but now some of the mainstream brands are weaving sustainability into the fabric of their business," says Chris Wille, head of sustainable agriculture at the Rainforest Alliance. "Popular brands such as those in the Kraft family and Lavazza are buying coffee and tea from farms certified by the Rainforest Alliance."

Cafédirect is the UK's largest Fairtrade hot drinks company, with a 35% share of UK Fairtrade tea and coffee sales, according to the Fairtrade Foundation. Earlier this year it carried out a major rebranding exercise. This coincided with the launch of Cafédirect Intense and Special Selection in the freeze-dried range, as well as the relaunch of Classic Blend (formerly Cafédirect 5065) with a new look and taste.

"We decided to align all the products to the parent brand," says Sylvie Barr, head of marketing, Cafédirect. "Under our new look, users will see Cafédirect as a beacon brand for Fairtrade."

She feels more education is needed so that consumers make an informed choice "and are not paralysed by the array of ethical labels on the shelves".

"We would like to see brands given the chance to flag up their message at point of purchase via leaflets or other point of sale material," she says. "There is a danger of consumer confusion if we don't do more."

Cafédirect is working closely with retailers on exclusive lines - for example, in November it will be producing Cloud Forest, currently available in whole bean only, in a roast and ground product, exclusively for Sainsbury's.

Retailers are also active in the Fairtrade sector. Sainsbury's recently announced its Fair Development Fund, which will be used to support Fairtrade initiatives to enable more farmers and growers in the developing world to sell their produce as Fairtrade.

To celebrate this year's Fairtrade Fortnight (26 February to 11 March) and Sainsbury's ongoing commitment to sustainable and ethical sourcing, the retailer converted all in-store Customer Café tea, coffee and hot chocolate to Fairtrade, says David Whiffen, hot beverages buyer at Sainsbury's.

Tesco is working with the Rainforest Alliance and from November will carry the alliance's symbol on its roast and ground coffee packaging. It is also introducing 100%-recyclable packaging for its own label tea.

"Tea is a plant, but what do we do? We put so much packaging on it," says Mark Suddaby, hot beverages buyer. "By introducing recycled packaging we'll save 5,000 trees a year."

Smaller producers in the sector are offering products ranging from Green Green Tea, a carbon-neutral tea from The Carbon Neutral Company, to The Little Big Company's completely new way of packaging tea.

The square tea bags, which are unbleached, are filled with Kenyan tea certified by the Fairtrade Foundation. They are packaged in a cardboard box, which is 100%-recycled and can either be recycled or composted. n