The logo that’s making the world a fairer place

The Fairtrade logo is one of the most familiar to consumers in a heavily-branded world, but the foodservice industry has yet to embrace it fully. Martin Hickman investigates

As a symbol, it’s not as famous as the Coca-Cola name or the interlocking rings of the Olympics, but six in ten westerners now recognise the Fairtrade logo – the most common ethical mark in the world.

Whether or not they appreciate the swirly design represents green grass, blue sky and a black head, they are turning in increasing numbers to the trade-not-aid movement. Global sales rocketed by 12 per cent to $6.6bn in 2011 alone.

Walk into most high street cafes, university cafeterias and work canteens in the UK and you’ll find at least one Fairtrade product such as coffee, tea or bananas.

The Fairtrade logo is a common sight on mainland Europe too, particularly in Germany, where 18,000 restaurants, canteens and cafes use at least one product, in France, Switzerland and the Netherlands – and in Canada and the United States.

In general, though, foodservice professionals source less fairly traded produce than the large European supermarket chains. Why is that – and what can Fairtrade do for the eating out industry?
One theory is that despite being well known in Europe, available in 120 countries and helpful to farmers in Africa and south and central America, Fairtrade is still a relatively unfamiliar idea in many parts of the world.

Founded in the Netherlands under the Max Havelaar brand in 1988, Fairtrade helps farmers in the poorer hemisphere develop by paying them a little more for their crops – and charges consumers in the north a little more.

Farmers are guaranteed a higher price than the world market price and also receive a “premium” to spend on developing their businesses and on social, health and environmental projects. Some 1.2 million farmers, their families and workers worldwide benefit from the scheme.

So which foodservice outlets use it? All of Starbucks’ espresso roast drinks in the UK are Fairtrade and multi-national caterers such as French-owned Sodexo buy too, stepping up its use during the annual springtime Fairtrade Fortnight.

Compass has set an industry first by using only Fairtrade sugar and bananas. Some of the quantities are impressive: in the UK and Ireland during the past year, it bought 854,000 kilos of Fairtrade bananas and 388,000 kilos of sugar. Giving one reason why professionals should switch over, group managing director Ian Sarson said the move made him “extremely proud”.

But you will be hard-pressed to find Fairtrade in most workplace canteens around the world, or in the fine-dining establishments that win Michelin stars. There are several reasons. The first is that despite its popularity in some places, the movement is still small overall – just 1 per cent of the total global food trade.

Supply is mostly limited to the 23 “consumer countries” – concentrated in the northern hemisphere with the exception of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

There are two other factors: eating out establishments are eager to extoll freshness and local provenance rather than highlight that supplies come from thousands of miles away. And unlike retail most meals are served straight onto the plate without packaging – and logos, swirly or not.

Nonetheless, ‘Fairtrade’ can be put on a menu. The ABode chain of six hotels and restaurants in England run by two Michelin starred chef Michael Caines stocks only Fairtrade coffee. At ABode Chester executive chef Tom Hines has also chalked up “Fairtrade coffee ice cream” and “Fairtrade coffee and chocolate fondant” on the menu.

He says his CafeDirect coffee from Peru tastes the same as other high quality blends and believes more chefs would use Fairtrade if they knew the help it gave to smallholders. He said: “People just think coffee is something you go to the supermarket to buy. They don’t know the stress that’s gone into growing it, the pay and conditions on the plantation. For me, Fairtrade is peace of mind: I know everything has been done fairly.”

Hines said: “To chefs and restaurateurs I would say: ‘When you buy pork and beef you want to know where it’s sourced from and what conditions are on the farm and I think you should do the same for coffee.

Martin Hickman is an award-winning journalist who writes about food. He was consumer affairs correspondent of the Independent from 2005-2013 before going freelance

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