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Fairtrade’s fight to reclaim leadership as multinationals in-house certification

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By Imogen Watson | Senior reporter

September 23, 2020 | 7 min read

As Fairtrade embarks on a total brand refresh at the beginning of a five-year plan, its head of brand and marketing sat down with The Drum to explain how it is connecting with its activist roots to harvest sales in a market at risk of overcrowding.

Fairtrade total brand refresh to open people's eyes to strength of global Fairtrade community

Fairtrade total brand refresh to open people's eyes to strength of global Fairtrade community

Green, blue and black, the waving figure nestled between Fairtrade’s yin-and-yang stamp offers a comforting guarantee that the goodness you’re about to consume is matched by the goodness provided to the supplier on the other end.

Established back in 1994, the Fairtrade Foundation was an ethical pioneer, striving to educate people about the importance of a fair supply chain.“When we were set up, sustainability wasn’t really on the agenda,“ explains its head of brand and marketing, Laura van de Ven. “The consumer insight at the time was founded on the fact that people needed to know the problems in order to act on them.“

Fast forward to 2020, and the number of Fairtrade-certified products has now increased to over 6,000. But as van de Ven breaks down, over the last decade there has been an increased interest in sustainability, not just from shoppers but from businesses.

“While some mainstream brands have joined the Fairtrade certification, as the climate crisis goes higher up on the agenda, this has resulted in a proliferation of sustainability schemes and certification marks,“ she says, pointing to the fact that supermarket shelves in the UK are now stacked high with products bearing sustainability logos. There are now more than 460 on food and beverage packages, with a third created over the past 15 years.

“So there is a lot of confusion in the consumer‘s mind around what is the difference between these sustainability schemes. Which one should I choose?“

Beyond that, giant food multinationals have begun taking matters into their own hands by setting up their own in-house certification programmes. Back in 2017, Fairtrade was dealt a blow to its business when Sainsbury decided to appraise the ethics of its own-brand teas itself. Dubbed ‘fauxtrade‘ tea, Sainsbury‘s, (the UK's biggest Fairtrade retailer) provoked a response from 40 cross-party MPs who urged it to reconsider, while one politician went to the Advertising Standards Authority to complain its new ‘Fairly Traded‘ brand would mislead consumers; the ad watchdog agreed. And, in the same year, Tesco moved all its own-label coffee from Fairtrade to another ethical certification scheme, the Rainforest Alliance.

To further this disappointment, in June of this year KitKat announced it was to sever ties after 10 years, following Tesco's footsteps by moving exclusively with Rainforest Alliance-certified farmers. Beyond the obvious business impact, such drops from high-profile brands makes Fairtrade‘s mission to protect these farmers all the harder.

Acknowledging the move by multinationals to in-house certification, van de Leden insists: “We‘re very supportive of the fact that these companies are putting attention to those at the bottom of the supply chain. But Fairtrade is an independent certification body, which is something that we pride ourselves on. It‘s not like marking your own homework. Only Fairtrade farmers receive protection against market prices, due to the Fairtrade minimum price and Fairtrade Premium.“

“We were the first in the market 25 years ago, so now we want to reclaim and solidify our leadership position,“ van de Ven admits. “We have some really strong brand metrics, where nine out of 10 shoppers recognise the certification mark, while 80% of people say that they trust and care about Fairtrade. We want to see even more people choose fair trade to grow sales because that's what's going to really create the impact for farmers.“

And so, yesterday (22 September) Fairtrade embarked on a new five-year plan that includes a total brand refresh to reassert itself against competition and remind those who's boss.

“For many people, Fairtrade is a brand that is synonymous with helping farmers earn a fair wage,“ van de Ven says. Its mission now is to make people aware of the full breadth and scale of the impact Fairtrade can create for vulnerable farmers and workers, beyond a mere transactional exchange.

Over the next five years, its new brand identity will raise awareness of the fact that a Fairtrade system empowers crucial development in communities, including building resilience to disasters (such as climate change and the Covid-19 crisis), establishing women‘s school of leadership, and climate adaptation plans to protect rainforests and thousands of species of animals across the world.

“In this Covid-19 environment and Brexit climate, where the interconnectedness of the world and of trade is very high on the agenda. It seemed like a very unique time to relook at our brand and what we could deliver," van de Ven details. "Some of the key pillars that this brand refresh is looking to address is we want to fight for the next generation of farmers and we want to mobilise the next generation of consumer to inspire the next generation of campaigners.“

To connect with its activist roots, Fairtrade turned to 2050 London and Humankind Research. Over the next five years, it will tell inspiring impact stories through photography, dynamic graphics, and vibrant colours to affirm its position under a new line: ‘Choose the world you want’. It hopes the slogan will convey the power of a global community working towards a common goal.

What good this brand refresh will do in stemming the movement of brands to other certification charities, or to in-house themselves, is hard to predict. Either way, it‘s a good opportunity for Fairtrade to make its mark, again.

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