This week I continue to look at the evolution of fairtrade standards and requirements, this time focusing on the organisation’s most recent development – Fairtrade Sourcing Programs. Launched at the end of January 2014, this hot-off-the-shelf initiative is intended to offer an alternative to stringent FT product standards thereby engaging more farmers and companies in doing business on fairtrade terms. Under traditional regulations, for a product to get the fairtrade mark, all its relevant ingredients must be fully certified (i.e. the content of fairtrade coffee beans in a fairtrade labelled coffee must be 100%). In the case of a composite product, all possible ingredients must be sourced on fairtrade terms, and the total fairtrade content must be at least 20% of the end product’s weight. At variance with this, the newly introduced Fairtrade Sourcing Programs, which currently cover cotton, cocoa and sugar, allows for just a single ingredient of a composite product to be fairtrade (and in the case of cotton, it doesn’t even have to be 100% of that focus ingredient). The end product will be labelled with a mark that looks somewhat different to, yet is clearly associated (easily confused?) with, the traditional and well-known to consumers fair-trade symbol.
On its official website, The Fairtrade International provides detailed and easily digestible information about the new sourcing initiative. A short video clip embedded in the webpage sets the background for the new program by providing a brief history of the FT label, sketching out core fairtrade principles, as well as describing some of the achievements of the global fairtrade movement and changes it helps to bring to growing communities. It then outlines the key principles of the new sourcing model and makes the case for it by providing a concrete example of how the program helps to open up new markets for fairtrade farmers to sell their produce. Thus, new product standards will now allow cocoa farmers to supply fairtrade cocoa to producers of Swiss chocolate, which has been previously excluded from the fairtrade market due to the clash of requirements: real Swiss chocolate can only be produced with Swiss beet sugar while former fairtrade product standards would require an FT labelled chocolate bar to contain 100% fairtrade sugar. The new sourcing program enables Swiss chocolate companies to purchase fairtrade cocoa while preserving the tradition of using local beet sugar – this means Swiss chocolate can now opt in for fairtrade, cocoa growers gain access to high value Swiss chocolate market, and consumers get a chance to combine support for fairtrade with love for best quality chocolate. The program has been launched across as well as outside the EU with German, Swiss and Japanese companies being the most pro-active in applying the new sourcing model. The Fairtrade Foundation (2014) claims the initiative offers a “second way for producers and companies to do business together on Fairtrade terms” helping producers to sell more of what they grow, enabling companies to engage with fairtrade on different levels and under more flexible conditions, as well as providing consumers with more ways and choices to support fairtrade.
However, the initiative raises serious concerns among which are such crucial issues as consumer trust and confusion, producers’ resistance, dilution of fairtrade standards as well as competition with the original mark. The problems are recognized not only by staunch critics of fairtrade but within the movement itself – the Fairtrade Foundation is postponing the introduction of the new label in the UK until at least 2015 (more preparatory work needs to be done to “make sure we introduce this new innovation in the right way”, the charity’s official webpage claims) while Fairtade America is currently prohibiting the use of the new mark on the American food market altogether. While orthodox fairtrade supporters regard the new label as a “light” version of the well-established and respected mark and an easy way for businesses to claim an ethical stance and improve the look of their annual CSR reports, optimists expect the program to boost fairtrade sales and, in fact, help consumers to more easily recognize fairtrade ingredients in a product. Whichever way it takes, the new sourcing program undoubtedly represents an important milestone in the development of the fairtrade movement and the principles it stands on.
Fairtrade Foundation (2014 February 21). Fairtrade Sourcing Programs. Retrieved April 22, 2014, http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/press_office/press_releases_and_statements/february_2014/fairtrade_sourcing_program.aspx