Unilever is to buck the Fairtrade trend by labelling its entire range of bestselling teas with the Rainforest Alliance mark.
The company, which buys 12% of the world's black leaf tea, said that by 2010 all its tea in Western Europe, including the UK's biggest-selling tea PG Tips, would carry the Rainforest Alliance frog logo. It had chosen the mark over Fairtrade because it felt it was a more comprehensive scheme, said Vindi Banga, Unilever president of foods.
"Fairtrade concentrates on the trading mechanism only, whereas the Rainforest Alliance looks at the quality of the soil, minimises the use of chemicals and environmental impact and improves the lives of farmers through health and educational programmes," he said. "Our household name brands will play a major role in explaining the importance of Rainforest Alliance to UK consumers."
The New York-based Rainforest Alliance is better known in the US than it is here and certifies products worth more than $1bn (£0.68bn) in annual sales. It has the backing of brands such as Starbucks, McDonald's, Chiquita, Innocent and Kenco.
"This decision will transform the tea industry, which has been suffering for many years from oversupply and underperformance," said chief executive Patrick Cescau, announcing the scheme yesterday. "It will not be achieved overnight, but we are committed to doing it because we believe it is the right thing to do for the people who drink our tea, the people along the entire length of our supply chain and for our business."
The two million growers involved would be able to command prices 10% to 15% higher than before, he said, but the company pledged not to pass on the cost to consumers initially.
The Fairtrade Foundation would not comment but a spokeswoman said one in two people in the UK now recognised the Fairtrade mark. Sales of Fairtrade products in the UK have grown 15.2% year-on-year to £136.4m [TNS Worldpanel].