Campaigners have cried foul over Sainsbury’s decision to stop working with the Fairtrade Foundation on tea, but is it really the ‘regressive step’ critics claim? By David Burrows.
Sainsbury’s was one of the first retailers to sell Fairtrade products, and in the past 20 years or so it’s grown into the world’s largest retailer of these ethically certified goods. Every one of its bananas, own-label roast and ground coffee packs, cane sugar and much of its chocolate carry the Fairtrade logo. Even all the coffee, tea and hot chocolate sold in its on-site cafés are certified by the scheme.
But in May the relationship between Fairtrade and its biggest customer soured when the latter launched its own “fairly traded” scheme for tea. The foundation had been “in discussions” about the new approach but was unable to get involved because it “falls short of our key standards”, said the chief executive, Michael Gidney.
Others were quick to criticise the move. Tea producers in Africa claimed Sainsbury’s just wanted to take back control of its supply chain and control how a “social premium” will be spent: the new model “will bring about disempowerment”, they said in an open letter.
Oxfam suggested it’s a potentially regressive step: if the Sainsbury’s initiative “does not meet the rigorous standards of the wider movement it could be less effective in supporting farmers around the world and potentially confusing for consumers”, the charity said.
Similar criticisms were levelled at Cadbury last year. In November, the brand’s owner, Mondelēz, announced a new partnership with Fairtrade, in which the latter won’t certify the products but will rather become a “partner” for the company’s internal Cocoa Life sustainable sourcing programme. In May this year it began replacing the Fairtrade logo on the front of products sold in the UK and Ireland with the Cocoa Life one.
Doom-mongers claim this could be the end of Fairtrade. This is perhaps premature: the Fairtrade Foundation supported Cadbury’s move given that it represented a loosening of the ties rather than the severing that Sainsbury’s appears to have gone for with tea. Let’s not forget, either, that Fairtrade had a retail value of £1.65bn at the last count in 2016 – this is a powerful, well-recognised brand in its own right.
Still, changes to the relationships with two of its biggest partners will be hard to swallow. For Sainsbury’s, tea is just the start – the retailer has big plans for its new set of “sustainability standards” covering 35 key crops and ingredients. There will be independent audits and “close collaboration” with expert advisers.
Will that be enough to convince consumers that the supermarket is the farmer’s friend?
Sophi Tranchell, the CEO of Divine Chocolate, certainly doesn’t think so. “The best way Sainsbury’s can guarantee to its customers that its products represent a fair and sustainable trading relationship with farmers is to carry the Fairtrade Mark,” she said.
Sainsbury’s CEO, Mike Coupe, admitted that he doesn’t pretend to have all the answers: “This project is about testing and developing new approaches, collaborating with expert partners and listening to our farmers and producers – finding out what works, and what can be taken to scale and adopted to secure a sustainable supply chain that benefits both our suppliers and our customers.”
He maintained that the “fairly traded” pilot provides tea farmers with a “guaranteed minimum price for their crop along with a social premium”. Equally important will be the additional support they need to become more resilient as climate change really kicks in. “Ethical and sustainable sourcing are at the heart of our business and as the world changes we cannot stand still,” Coupe added.
And neither can Fairtrade. The message is loud and clear: big food businesses are looking for a new model of ethical certification – and many more of them will believe they can do things better themselves. Whether it’s better for producers is the £1.65bn question.