Fair Trade or food miles?

At the April 2008 Brussels Development Briefing, Natalie Berg of PlanetRetail shed light on the ways that retailers, supermarkets and manufacturers are dealing with Fair Trade issues. Yet, consumers are still confused – the ‘food miles‘ debate is challenging the success of Fair Trade in the grocery sector.

The global market for Fair Trade products is growing at 40% year-on-year. Fair Trade sales in Austria increase 63%; Belgium 86%, Ireland 77%, and Sweden 73%. However, the UK, Switzerland and France still had the highest Fair Trade sales numbers in 2006. In response to consumer demand, retailers are increasingly offering Fair Trade products – mostly through private labels and brands. Some supermarkets even converted entire product categories to Fair Trade, as Sainsbury’s did with bananas and sugar, the Co-op with all hot beverages and Marks & Spencer with all sugar in jams and conserves. Fair Trade “even makes its way onto discount shelves”, Ms. Berger told the participants. In 2006, Lidl in Germany launched a private label range for Fair Trade products under the Fairglobe brand, which is viewed by critics “as a smokescreen”.

It is not just supermarkets that are becoming ‘fairer’ – McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks all offer Fair Trade products. Manufacturers are also involved: Tate & Lyle will convert 100% of its retail branded sugar to Fair Trade by 2009, which will be the largest ever switch to Fair Trade by a UK company.

A challenge remains to further educate and inform consumers. Many feel their individual actions will not make a difference. Others are confused: “Which is better, Fair Trade or local foods? Organic or Fair?“

The food miles debate is increasing the demand for local foods, which could become a threat to air freighted Fair Trade products. The air freight labels being introduced in the UK may discourage consumers from purchasing products transported over long distances. Tesco is developing a measure of the carbon footprint of all its products, and others are testing similar schemes to measure energy use during the product’s complete lifecycle. More information than ever is available to the consumers, “but how much information is too much?”, Ms. Berg asked.

Links: presentation, executive summary, video interview

See more from the 16 April Briefing

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