Until November 2016, the continued growth of the Fairtrade moment was taken by many as a given. It was viewed as a much-desired certification mark, explicitly looked for by consumers and showcased proudly by brands. The Fairtrade foundation, having been founded in 1992, had become a major organisation by the mid 2000s, and as recently as last year achieved 97% recognition among shoppers. Where Fairtrade products were once seen by many as a high-end niche, a 14.3% average price decrease and the entry of products at all price points shows that these days, this could not be further from the case.
Fairtrade serves many purposes – not only does it promote greater equity in trading partnerships and vastly improve the lives of those at the beginning of the supply chain, but it educates consumers about the source of their food, and its rise in popularity led to customers making increasingly ethical decisions in their purchases – even those purchases which aren’t necessarily Fairtrade. Not every brand has opted for Fairtrade certification, but it certainly carries with it no negative connotations.
So just why, in November 2016, did chocolate giants Mondelez announce that it was pulling Cadbury out of Fairtrade certification after 7 years? The reasons cited by the brand for pulling certification was that the brand had developed its own sustainability programme, the Cocoa Life scheme – the branding of which would replace the Fairtrade logo. Fairtrade remains a ‘partner’ and will continue to monitor the company’s work, pushing the Fairtrade logo to the back of pack. Many criticised the move, on grounds such as the threat of less transparent company policies, although Cadbury maintained that the move would not be detrimental to any suppliers in any way.
Although this shook the Fairtrade world dramatically in the tail end of 2016 leading many to question its future, its fortunes certainly picked up at the start of 2017, with The Co-op leading the latest round of pledges. The group became the first UK retailer to sell and use only Fairtrade cocoa in all its own-brand products, and soon rolled this out to tea, and is expected to roll the scheme out beyond this. This support was mirrored by brands as Mars injected £30m into the market, and were credited with bringing Fairtrade truly into the mainstream, lowering average prices and widening availability. In the ensuing months, plenty more brands both new and old revealed their new allegiances with Fairtrade – making what was to come all the more questionable.
In May, retail giant Sainsbury’s shook the movement again, revealing its trialling of its own sustainability scheme, to gradually replace Fairtrade. This led to widespread high-profile criticism from organisations such as Oxfam and Cafod, at least three online petitions, and Sainsbury’s was hauled in front of MPs to justify its decision. This came as a particular blow to the movement, not least because until this point Sainsburys, with its major 17% market share, was the largest supermarket retailer of Fairtrade products. To add to Fairtrade’s woes, soon after leading UK supermarket Tesco announced it too would be cutting down on its Fairtrade certification, instead certifying its products through the smaller, lesser-known Rainforest Alliance. This raised concerns that many other brands and retailers would follow suit.
Despite this, 2016/17 remained Fairtrade’s best year yet, with the help of brands such as Mars. Although average prices dropped, this was a positive, making it more accessible – as a result, an additional 148,000 tonnes of Fairtrade produce went through Britain’s tills. According to Kantar, this meant 240,000 new shoppers, and a market penetration of 94%. Dynamics within Fairtrade have been known to change regularly, with brands moving in and out – despite the size of Sainsbury’s, many point out that in a world such as Fairtrade, disruption is par for the course. No retailer will stop stocking Fairtrade brands, the move stops at own-label. The foundation’s continued hard work and market growth since November 2016 certainly shows that Fairtrade is here to keep on fighting.
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