Is Fairtrade growing in popularity in the UK?

Posted by Josette Dunn on 15th March 2010

Fairtrade is growing in profile in the UK and the supermarkets have been keen to get on board for the past few years, highlighting their growing Fairtrade offering, introducing additional promotions and helping to educate their customers on the virtues of Fairtrade. But, Jonny Steel asks, have the millions of pounds poured into Fairtrade education resulted in increased interest and, ultimately, sales?

Fair Trade logo

Have the millions of pounds poured into Fairtrade education resulted in increased interest and ultimately, sales? Are we spending more on Fairtrade than in previous years? While more UK consumers than ever are familiar with the concept of Fairtrade, and no doubt, if asked, would agree that it is a worthy cause, the question remains whether they’re willing to spend more on their groceries to ensure that a farmer on the other side of the world gets paid fairly. During a recession, when many consumers are concerned primarily with taking care of their own families, what has been the impact on Fairtrade search and purchasing trends?

As the graph shows, online interest in Fairtrade has dropped over the past year, probably as a result of the economic downturn. Similarly, mySupermarket.co.uk, the grocery shopping and comparison website, found that sales of Fairtrade products have fallen by 5% over the past year.

The major peak comes around Fairtrade Fortnight each year, as people respond to the increased publicity. Indeed, Fairtrade coffee sales on mySupermarket.co.uk increased by 57% during the fortnight, compared to the two weeks beforehand. The only other time of year that appears to see a significant uplift is in the period ahead of Christmas, potentially reflecting an uplift in searches for Christmas presents like Fairtrade clothes and bags.

In terms of weekly online Internet shopping, Sainsbury’s and Ocado offer the most Fairtrade products, and not surprisingly see the highest weekly spend of all the supermarkets. In an average branch, Sainsbury’s shoppers will find about 157 Fairtrade products, while in Ocado (Waitrose) they’ll find 154. Tesco have 117 and Asda 65. Ocado shoppers spend the most on Fairtrade at GBP1.18 per order, compared to Sainsbury’s (57p), Tesco (30p) and ASDA (16p).

Sainsbury’s have taken a strategic approach to Fairtrade, replacing many traditional lines with Fairtrade alternatives. For example, all Sainsbury’s bananas and most of their standard own-label tea is now Fairtrade and Sainsbury’s loose bananas are now the country’s top-selling Fairtrade product. This approach smartly takes away the decision-making process from the customer, giving them no alternative to Fairtrade, and resulting in many shoppers buying these products without even realising it.

Moreover, in a bid to remain competitive, these Fairtrade products are often priced identically to their equivalents elsewhere that are not Fairtrade. For example, Sainsbury’s bananas are currently priced at 97p/kilo, just as non-Fairtrade ones are in Asda and Tesco.

During this year’s Fairtrade Fortnight approximately 25% of all Fairtrade products were on special offer at the supermarkets. Many of these offers bring down the prices so much that they’re priced closely to their non-Fairtrade equivalents, offering customers a great way to stock up on Fairtrade items without spending much more than the regular ones.

The top Search terms within the Fairtrade portfolio show that people don’t tend to search for specific Fairtrade products, but rather, are searching for general information. Within the top results, the only specific products to feature are flowers, chocolate and jewelry. This suggests that people still view Fairtrade as something that they might consider giving as a gift, but not something that they necessarily want as part of their own daily life.

Of the groceries, although chocolate is the top Fairtrade search term, there are actually more Fairtrade coffee products available at our supermarkets. Chocolate comes second, followed by tea and sugar. Fairtrade’s popularity at more premium retailers such as Ocado and the low online search for specific Fairtrade products suggests that it remains a niche area of interest. While the more value-oriented supermarkets may focus on it during Fairtrade Fortnight, this may be more as a way to highlight their “ethical credentials” rather than being targeted at meeting their customers’ demands.

The list of websites that receive the most traffic from this portfolio of search terms only includes one supermarket. This highlights once again that while there is general interest in Fairtrade, it doesn’t always convert into purchases. While the official Fairtrade Foundation website receives nearly 60% of the traffic in the period of the last 4 weeks, there is a major absence of the four online supermarkets, with only The Co-operative Group at number 13 on the list.

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