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UK stores scramble to sign up fair trade deals

March 2000

Most of the UK’s biggest supermarkets are expected to begin selling fair trade fresh produce in the near future, following a decision by the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) to stock Fairtrade Mark bananas in more than 1000 Co-op stores.

The ground-breaking CWS deal to buy bananas from Costa Rica and Ghana has spurred rivals into urgent talks with the Fairtrade Foundation, an independent certification body responsible for the Fairtrade Mark.

‘All the major supermarkets except one are now talking to us,’ said Fairtrade Foundation spokesman Ron Hinsley. ‘They’ve realised for a long time that they’ll have to take an ethical stance in this area but they’ve been putting it off because of the investment and hard work it entails.

‘Now the Co-op’s move has changed all that. There’s been a dramatic rush, basically because CWS broke ranks with the others.’

The moves coincide with tentative steps by the European Commission (EC) to define a policy on fair trade.

The EC has adopted an official communication on fair trade that sets out existing EC activities in this area and looks at the debate on fair trade in general.

Although the communication makes no proposals, the EC says it is ‘intended to encourage a debate between all interested parties and stakeholders’ over future policy.

The official communication suggests the EC might look at providing a legal definition of fair trade and outline criteria for monitoring fair trading arrangements. The EC gave an undertaking in June 1998 to provide a communication on fair trade.

On the specific topic of bananas, the Fairtrade Foundation has been holding talks with supermarkets over the past year, but progress until now had been slow. Now it believes most will shortly follow CWS into the market.

Sainsbury’s is expected to have fair trade bananas in at least 30 stores by the start of National Fairtrade Fortnight (6-19 March). Waitrose is also believed to be close to a similar deal.

Hinsley said banana producers from the Windward Islands in the Caribbean, who struggle to compete with big producers in Latin America, were most interested in fair trade deals.

The foundation says most independent Caribbean suppliers have a comparatively good record on issues such as labour standards and the use of pesticides. For this reason, they may be attractive to retailers looking for suitable suppliers.

A move into bananas, which account for a quarter of all UK fruit sales, could pave the way for other fair trade fresh produce in supermarkets. Sainsbury’s is already believed to be discussing deals in Grenada for the supply of various exotic fair trade fruits.

CWS claimed its decision – welcomed by international development minister Clare Short – ‘signals a breakthrough in the campaign to support small, independent producers’.

Many supermarkets have been selling packaged fair trade goods for a number of years, but have worried that the combination of the short shelf-life of fresh produce with higher fair trade prices, could prove uneconomic.

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