By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine
British consumers spend more on Fair Trade products than any other country. Why have UK shoppers embraced ethical trading so warmly, and why are some in the industry worried it could be just a fad?
Alarm bells are ringing once more in supermarket aisles. Swathes of shelf space are once again being emptied as store owners comb their stock for tins, jars and ready meals which could contain the illegal, cancer-causing dye Sudan I.
British shoppers are perhaps more battle-hardened than any others when it comes to food scares, but there is evidence to suggest that the recent unhappy history has provoked some to seek better quality produce when filling their weekly trolley.
Organics and free-range are clear examples, but some industry insiders believe fair trade products are riding in the slipstream.
New figures are expected to reveal Britain has overtaken Switzerland to become the biggest fair trade market in the world. The exact number will be announced next week, but is expected to show the UK spends more than £130m a year on ethically-traded products.
That's more than Germany, the United States, France, Italy and Japan - countries with populations roughly equal to, or bigger than, Britain's.
The fair trade ethos attempts to iron out the volatility of world commodity markets by guaranteeing farmers in poor countries a minimum price for their crops.
Food scares have prompted some to be more discerning
The current coffee crisis is a case in point. Coffee prices have been in a five-year slump, but under fair trade schemes growers are paid about $1.20 (62p) for a pound of coffee - roughly double the market price.
Shoppers end up paying more for their jar of fair trade continental roast, but it seems to be a price many British consumers are willing to pay.
The buzzword in the food industry now is "traceability" - telling the customer more about where the product comes from. But this is nothing new to the fair trade sector, says Helen Ireland, of Cafe Direct, which has long made a virtue of building bridges between producer and consumer. Fair trade products often carry details about the producer on their packaging, sometimes even a photo of the farmer.
Ian Bretman of the Fairtrade Foundation thinks there are other reasons too why British shoppers are buying into fair trade goods, such as historic trading links with Commonwealth countries. Although the US shopper is better off, Britain's "more international outlook" has buoyed the sector, he says.
Scepticism among young people about politics could also be feeding the fair trade phenomenon. A recent survey of more 1,000 18-30-year-olds by Populis, found this age group thinks giving to charity is more important than voting.
Fair weather shoppers?
Fair trade schemes tap into this giving sentiment, while at the same time allowing the "giver" to come away with something too.
But while the fair trade sector is delighted with the 40% or so year-on-year growth, it still accounts for only a tiny fraction of the overall groceries market. It's this second stage - building on the foundations - that is worrying some in the industry.
The fear is that as more and more are won over and demand proliferates, the fair trade philosophy could be diluted by a flood of new products. Cracks have already appeared in the organics market, with revelations, for example, that foreign growers have to meet less stringent standards than UK farmers.
The worst case scenario, says Stuart Palmer, of Traidcraft, is that "fair trade" becomes just another trendy label, like the anti-fur campaign or the bubble of interest in environmental issues in the late 80s.
Unlike "organic", the "fair trade" label is not regulated - meaning anyone can use it (although the Fairtrade Foundation does run an accreditation scheme).
While Mr Palmer welcomes supermarkets coming on board - Tesco, for example, now has an own-label fair trade coffee - he wants greater efforts to educate shoppers about the ethos.
"At the heart of fair trade is establishing a relationship between the consumer and the grower. It's not enough just to include a fair trade badge on a pack, shoppers need to know something about who grew these tea leaves or harvested the honey," he says.
Starbucks, like many other coffee shop chains, have moved into fair trade
Traidcraft is Britain's leading fair trade group, with a host of products that go beyond food and drink, and include clothes, homeware and toys.
"We're seeking to make sure that people who come on board are deeply rooted in educating the customer about our principles," says Mr Palmer.
His concerns are shared by Jon Walker, of the fair-trade chain of shops Out Of This World.
"We're worried that now it's mainstream and growing very fast people are going to start making claims which cannot be verified," says Mr Walker. "It could be catastrophic."