'Fair trade' food booming in Britain

In a quiet church vestibule on the southern edge of London, they're doing brisk business. Customers are digging out change for tea bags and cookies. Bags of coffee are being snapped up as if they were the last in town.

"It's only the second year we've done this, but it's really taking off," says Nova Smith, a church volunteer who helps organize the sale of "fair-trade" items. "People are more and more interested in fair trade."

Data show that Britons are avidly buying fair-trade groceries, organic foods, and sustainably farmed produce. Experts speak of a cultural shift in which foodstuffs once considered niche and expensive are now going mainstream.

"They've gone from the margins to the mainstream quite fast," says Professor Tim Lang, an expert in food policy at London's City University. He says the reasons are manifold: good campaigning, globalization, and "large problems that have come into the public arena, like water shortages, adulteration of foods, pollution, contamination, and public-health problems."

In recent months, evidence of this quiet food revolution has multiplied. Supermarkets and major retailers are rapidly expanding their fair-trade offerings such that there are now 1,500 different fair-trade goods on the market. Sales reached more than $500 million last year, up 46 percent from the previous year. Last month, one leading supermarket, Sainsbury, said all its bananas would now be fair-trade. Tea and coffee in another leading retailer, Marks and Spencer, is now exclusively fair-trade.

Purveyors of organic (chemical-free) foods report strong growth as well. Sales of more than $1.9 billion annually (out of a total national grocery turnover of around $135 billion) are growing at 30 percent a year in England. A recent survey by the Oxfam charity, a proponent of fair trade, found that two-thirds of shoppers had refused to buy something because its producer was associated with unethical practices.

"It's part of a whole change of mood around the way we want to live our lives," says Helen Browning, food and farming director of the Soil Association, a charity promoting sustainable farming. "There's a recognition that the consumer society and values of the 1980s have worn thin, and people are looking for something more real."

Or, as Smith puts it: "People feel it's a small thing they can do to make a difference. You can't change the world, but you can do a little bit that helps."

Of course, Britain is not alone. Organic food is popular in other European countries such as Germany, where sales outstrip those in Britain. Organic retail sales in the US have grown more than 20 percent each year since 1990.

In Britain, organic farmers now find it much easier to make a living than non-organic farmers, says Ms. Browning.

"The tipping point came when we started getting retailers doing 100-percent [fair trade] for certain products," says Barbara Crowther of the Fairtrade Foundation, the British member of Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO). "In terms of volume and range of product available to the consumer, the UK is the world's leader," she says. "Fair trade can help farmers who can see they can get even more value from their crop. It can give them a stability of income."

Some have argued that ethical food is a new type of status symbol, a hallmark of the affluent society with time on its hands.

But academics say the evidence shows that ethical food is not limited to a class or sector of society.

"There is strong evidence that [fair trade] has a cross-class appeal," says Mr. Lang.

Elizabeth Dowler, a food expert at Warwick University, agrees that it is not merely a manifestation of the modern affluent society. "The 'counterculture' movement has a long history, as does a concern for the social and economic local well-being," she says. "The food-retailing sector argues that affluence plays a part – people have the leisure and capacity to indulge in that which is not 'essential.' I think this is too limited a view."

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