The burgeoning number of big brand names carrying the Fairtrade mark has sparked concern in some quarters that it could be exploited simply as a marketing gimmick, says Gaelle Walker

Products from some of the world’s largest companies have taken their first steps on the fair trade platform in the past year. Yet the entrance of major brands, including Nescafé with its Partners’ Blend coffee and Kraft Foods with its Kenco Sustainable Development, has whipped up storms in a number of coffee cups.
While many in the industry agree that the entrance of the big name brands can only be a good thing, raising consumer awareness of the fair trade ethos and bringing it more to the mainstream, others are a little more sceptical.
“Fair trade is about reconnecting producer with consumer and, in our view, developing close relationships with marginalised farmers based on medium to long-term investment,” says Steven Macatonia, director at producer Union Coffee Roasters. “Sadly, this view is not shared by most of the top brands, which are increasingly demanding a share of the spoils.
“It is tempting to conclude that most of these big companies view Fairtrade, and recent alternative certification standards, as simply the next marketing gimmick in need of quick exploitation - with profit, rather than consumer taste and enjoyment, as the overriding factor.”
However, Mike Batten, director and founder of organic food company Venture Foods, disagrees: “So long as fair trade products go through the Fairtrade Foundation, exploitation cannot happen. There are certain rules and regulations that need to be met, which will modify the increased volume while keeping standards high.”
Siobhan Molloy, general sales manager for 100% Fairtrade coffee brand Cafédirect, also believes that despite large branded presence in the fair trade arena, controls are in place to ensure that farmers continue to be supported. “The sector is growing at a steady rate,” she says. “There have been, and will continue to be, many new entrants to the market. We welcome that, as the more people pay fair trade prices, the more money goes back to the farmers and growers,
which is what it is all about.”
Figures from the Fairtrade Foundation show that the category is in 51% value growth year-on-year and, in the UK, sales of products carrying the Fairtrade mark reached £140m in 2004.
In addition, the latest TNS data for October 2005 shows that penetration of Fairtrade products in UK households is gaining momentum, rising from 33% to 40% year-on-year.
Innovation is key for fair trade products and manufacturers are forever developing new variants, flavours and packaging.
While Cafédirect has just launched the first Fairtrade whole bean coffee, Percol, the ethical ground and instant coffee brand, has come back with the first coffee sachets for cafetières and filter machines as well as recently unveiling a new brand design and packaging revamp.
However, despite these encouraging growth figures, all parties say that a vast amount of ground remains to be covered.
“The major global buyers of commodities such as coffee could change the current state of trade in one fell swoop if they chose to do so. The fact that they are looking at it at all is a positive move - but ensuring a fairer price for a few farmers, when so many more could benefit, is only a very small start,” says Sophi Tranchell, MD of The Day Chocolate Company.
She adds that a large amount of time and effort must also be invested in the nurturing of consumer confidence and understanding of the fair trade ethos, which remains astoundingly hazy for a number of people. For example, a study by brand agency Dragon discovered misguided, uninformed and dated views about fair trade among non buyers. The most common misconception was that people associated fair trade products with charity and so believed that the quality must be below standard.
“Quality is absolutely key; the