The fair trade movement has been brewing since the late 1980s when Mexican farmers rallied against the collapse of coffee prices and formed a co-operative. Now, it seems the ethical cup runneth over.
Figures show that while fair trade remains a niche market in the UK, the spending power of the ethical consumer is rising sharply. The Fairtrade Foundation, which guarantees that produce meets a minimum set of trade standards, found that sales of approved products in the UK rose by 52 per cent last year to £140m compared with £92m in 2003.
That shows consumers are increasingly prepared to pay a premium for a product to ensure farmers in the developing world are guaranteed a stable income against a backdrop of fluctuating market prices. One of the rallying calls of the fair traders remains the collapse in 2001 of coffee prices which forced farmers to end their children's education, withdraw from long-cultivated land or switch production to the narcotic qat.
The Fairtrade Foundation says much of the sales success is due to its core items, which all registered increased sales last year although demand for them in the non-ethical market remained stagnant. Sales of ethical coffee reached £49.3m last year, the biggest seller ahead of bananas (£30.6m), chocolate (£13.6m) and tea (£12.9m).
The figures are further improved by the increasing number of categories in the fair trade range, which now includes flowers, wines, oils and footballs and is to be extended this year to include rice and spices. This has translated to an increase in the number of retail and catering products from 150 in 2003 to 834 last year.
The main retail backers of the Fairtrade mark in the UK are the Co-op, rated the most supportive by Ethical Consumer magazine, with 100 brands, Tesco (91) and Waitrose (27). All retailers and brand owners such as Café Direct pay a licensing fee to the foundation.
Sales of fair trade coffee at high street chains such as Pret a Manger, Costa Coffee and Starbucks have contributed to a 70 per cent rise in the "out of home sector", which also includes tea, juices and snacks and is the fastest growing part of the fair trade market.
Harriet Lamb, executive director of the foundation, said millions of shoppers had switched in response to "catastrophic falls" in the prices of commodities. She urged British consumers to be conscientious and buy Fairtrade, which claims it benefits five million people, including farmers, workers and their families.
She compared the plight of farmers exposed to fluctuations in food prices to the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami and said every shopper could help. "While a few are standing on the shore and watching these man-made economic tsunamis destroy lives - even justifying inaction in the name of economic competitiveness or liberalization of the market - many more are getting behind Fairtrade," she said.
To coincide with the start today of the foundation's "Fairtrade Fortnight" campaign, the Government has announced a grant of £750,000 over three years to help bring more products to the market.
Fair trade is now supported in about 49 countries and new consumer markets are opening with products aimed at affluent groups in Mexico, Thailand and India.
Jeannie Bushell, 40, buys fair trade produce where possible to set an example to her children Ellen, 11, and Olivia, 7, and to keep her conscience clear.
The project manager from north London said: "I buy fair trade bananas, marmalade, tea bags and coffee. They are the most conventional things. I buy fair trade because I've got young children and it's an important lesson for them to understand, similar to recycling. It's not possible to buy absolutely everything, but I try to make an effort to chose wisely and encourage them to think the same way." Mrs Bushell said knowing the suppliers were getting a fairer deal meant she could buy with a clearer conscience. "Perhaps people are not as aware as they ought to be. More could be done to make people aware of how they could help others - they might make more conscience-driven choices. We shouldn't gain through exploiting others. They do tend to be slightly more expensive. We are all a bit guilty of not questioning where food comes from and are driven by price, but even buying a few fair trade items has to help."
On her farm in Dominica, one of the Windward Islands, Regina Joseph produces 35 boxes of bananas a week, providing 70 per cent of her income. It is no small achievement considering that in the past 15 years the islands' share of the world market has fallen from 60 per cent to 20 per cent.
During that time, hundreds of farmers have switched to fair trade, which now accounts for 71 per cent of production. "The advantage I see is I don't have to use chemicals, which is good for my health. And it helps to pay bills and send my children to school," said Ms Joseph, 43, a single mother of five.
Farmers' groups receive a premium to invest in business and community improvements such as a community center. Fair-trade coconuts from the Windwards have recently arrived in the UK, and Ms Joseph said: "We can go ahead with mangoes, and maybe we will have a cluster of fair trade produce in the UK market."
© 2005 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd