Farewell to Fairtrade: Sainsbury's defends in-house sustainable sourcing certification

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock/fabio lamanna
© iStock/fabio lamanna

Related tags Fairtrade Fair trade

UK supermarket Sainsbury’s, the world’s biggest retailer of Fairtrade goods, has launched its own sustainable sourcing programme for more than 35 key commodities and ingredients. Campaigners, farmers and some manufacturers have cried foul, but are they being fair?

Last month, Mondelēz began replacing the Fairtrade logo on the front of some of its Cadbury products in the UK and Ireland with the one for its own Cocoa Life programme. The decision, announced in November, was a controversial one, but it had the full backing of the ethical scheme.

“It may sound surprising but actually Fairtrade is going to be working even more closely with Cadbury from now on – right at the heart of their 358m [US$400m] Cocoa Life programme where it matters,”​ explained the organisation’s director of policy and public affairs Barbara Crowther, in a blog designed to dispel fears that this marked the beginning of the end for Fairtrade.

Ethical certification schemes need to evolve was the message, and the new relationship with Cadbury is a logical, productive and sustainable next step. This was reason to “cheer not jeer”​, Crowther suggested.

Sainsbury’s more recent decision to launch its own “fairly traded” procurement scheme has not gone down so well. “We’ve been in discussions about how we might collaborate but we were unable to support what they’re doing because their approach falls short of our key standards,” ​said Fairtrade Foundation chief executive Michael Gidney.

The organisation even published an open letter from tea farmers in Africa – the guinea pigs in a new pilot that could see 35 key commodities and ingredients fall within the new 'Sainsbury’s sustainability standards' programme. The model will “bring about disempowerment”,​ the farmers said, as they called on the retailer to rethink its new approach.

That isn’t likely to happen (despite all the negative headlines), according to Sainsbury's. A substantial amount of time (three years) and money has already been invested in the new scheme, and the firm’s CEO clearly believes that it’s the right time to move on from Fairtrade. “Ethical and sustainable sourcing are at the heart of our business and as the world changes we cannot stand still,”​ Mike Coupe said.

Has Fairtrade been too slow to react? The scheme has had its critics. And let’s not forget it’s a multi-billion Euro brand in its own right – and the bigger you get the less nimble you become.

Whether Sainsbury’s is better for farmers, manufacturers, consumers, the planet or the supermarket remains to be seen.

Growers will still receive their guaranteed minimum price, Sainsbury’s confirmed, as well as the social premium – but it wants more control over how the latter is spent.

Oxfam believes it’s a “regressive step”,​ whilst Sophi Tranchell, CEO at Divine Chocolate (a Fairtrade company owned by cocoa farmers), said the proposals shift the balance of power away from growers. “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.

Indeed, the big challenge for Sainbury’s will be convincing consumers that it can be trusted to treat farmers as fairly as Fairtrade. There will independent audits and ongoing improvements as the scheme is expanded but Fairtrade won’t be watching over Sainsbury’s shoulder as it is with Mondelēz (the Fairtrade logo will still be on the reverse of Cadbury packaging).

The retailer will therefore have to convince consumers that breaking from the watchful eye of an independent certification scheme will provide long-term benefits for growers, as well as security of supply. The pilots – initially for prawns and tea – will highlight what works and what can be taken to scale, according to Coupe.

In the more immediate future, the design of its new range of 'fairly traded' products could be crucial. Too similar to the Fairtrade branding and it could face accusations of trying to confuse shoppers (similar criticisms were levelled at Cadbury). Too different and consumers might not pick the products up at all.

But Fairtrade won’t necessarily be hoping that the scheme (or others like it that will inevitably emerge) ends up as a failure. “That could have a negative impact on all Fairtrade schemes,”​ said Rob Manning, strategy director at shopper marketing agency 032, and that could create negative perceptions around fair trade and other ethical food schemes. 

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Posted by Martin Satney,

From an ethical and CSR standpoint, what are the sustainable benefits to farmers, the environment and the SDGs? Greater stakeholders' focus and approach may be useful.

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Posted by Eve Broadis,

Up to date news is that Cadburys will not be putting the logo on their packaging . It was originally going to be put on the reverse.

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