The caterers who gathered at the Malmaison Charterhouse Square in the heart of the City of London had a mixed understanding of the meaning behind Fairtrade.
Michael Duckett, catering manager at the Royal Brompton Hospital, saw it as a growing trend, alongside the increasing demand for organic and locally produced ingredients Mark Parfait, food development director of contract caterer Harbour & Jones, viewed it as an opportunity to make charitable donations to those in need and Brain Turner, president of the Academy of Culinary Arts, said he was slightly confused by the term.
The aim of Fairtrade, explained Sylvie Barr, head of marketing at Cafédirect, is to provide farmers and growers in developing countries with a fair deal that will cover the cost of production, enabling them to feed themselves and their families, provide good healthcare and better education for their children and enable them to plan for the future.
"However, it is not necessarily a guarantee of quality," she said, although she stressed that, if properly supported, the farmers and producers are able to develop their products and deliver quality products in the long term.
"A good cup of coffee can only be achieved by getting the raw product right," said Barr. "Coffee, like wine, is a living product and therefore the quality of the end product is dependent on the quality of the soil, the light and the shade. Then you have to get the roasting and the grinding right, too. The quality of all these things is more likely to be achieved if the growers receive a fair price for their products."
Keith Shearer, executive head chef at Malmaison, said that if Fairtrade is to be sustainable, then it's vital that quality is present: "Otherwise, customers are being short-changed in playing with the ‘bleeding hearts' syndrome."
Turner agreed that quality was paramount in determining whether or not he buys Fairtrade products. "While I agree with the principle behind it, I work within a corporate situation that is profit-motivated," he said. "Like most people here, I am expected to produce good-tasting food at the best price, and if Fairtrade products fit the bill, then we can facilitate it."
With coffee being the second-largest commodity traded on the stock market after oil, there is an immense amount of profit to be generated by the product. "Coffee is an enormous money-making machine, and that is why, after the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989, coffee growers became vulnerable and existed at the mercy of the middleman," said Barr.
As a result, unscrupulous practices in the production of coffee flourished, making the industry a natural one to benefit from the growth of Fairtrade during the 1990s. Now, coffee is the largest Fairtrade product in the UK, with a retail value in 2005 of £65.8m, followed by bananas (retail value in 2005 of £47.7m).
Everyone agreed that the growth in consumer interest in the origins of our food has helped Fairtrade to flourish.
"People are far more aware now than ever before of what they are eating," said Shearer. "Hence the rise in farmers' markets and growing interest in the harvesting of products and the rearing and slaughtering of animals. Guys like Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have made the source of our food a real talking point. Fairtrade is part of the momentum towards local, organic food."
Peter Sulston, managing director of Scolarest, adds: "The growth in Fairtrade is very much public-driven. There is a definite market that wants it, particularly in colleges and universities, where I am working. Students and academics crave Fairtrade products, and as caterers we have to respond to that demand."
There is also a demand in hospitals for more Fairtrade products, alongside organic and local supplies. "We introduced Fairtrade coffee and bananas five years ago," said Duckett. "It is particularly a selling point on our private wards, where we derive 20% of our income."
There was much agreement that Fairtrade products provide a feel-good factor, giving consumers the opportunity to pay a premium for goods that is akin to making a donation to charity.
"The main reasons people buy Fairtrade products is because they want to be eco-friendly and socially responsible," said Parfait. "We've found that the goods don't necessarily win on taste tests, but customers want to buy them for ethical reasons and see that giving something is better than not giving at all."
Turner agreed. "A lot of people believe that coffee pickers deserve something and therefore use the purchase of Faitrade products as a means of giving to charity rather than putting money into the Red Cross box."
There was concern that the lines are blurred between goods that are Fairtrade and those that are fairly traded and unfairly traded. "Does this mean that every product other than Fairtrade ones are unfairly traded?" asked James Hoffman, barista at La Spaziole. "This is obviously not the case, as there are many coffee makers trading fairly who simply do not use the Fairtrade mark."
Parfait said that he knows of a coffee company that has chosen not to adopt the Fairtrade mark because it believes it can provide an even better deal by working directly with specific coffee farmers. "This company invests in the infrastructure of villages and education programmes, and the cost of their coffee is no higher than Fairtrade coffee," he said.
The other main concern around the discussion table was that Fairtrade has become something of a business in its own right and that, as a result, supermarkets and food companies were profiteering. "My confusion about Fairtrade revolves around the fact that while I'm all for supporting people who need it, there are also big companies that are financially benefiting here, and the cynic in me worries about that," said Turner. "I think we have to be careful when giving out the Fairtrade message that we don't hide the profit factor."
Barr said companies such as Cafédirect don't deny that Fairtrade is about making money. "But the difference is what we do with our profits," she explained. "About 60% of our profits are reinvested in the businesses of the tea, coffee and cocoa growers. We're not just providing a donation, we are giving a fair deal to enable the growers to sustain and better their businesses."
There is no doubt, agreed the participants, that Fairtrade is a complex issue and one that needs to be continually discussed to raise the public's understanding and awareness of it.
"It all comes back to education in schools," said Turner. "As part of teaching children from an early age about a balanced diet, we should be telling them abut the importance of fair trade. But we also need to consider the fact that there are a lot of young people in this country not getting a fair deal themselves, and consider that a pound in Africa probably goes a lot further than a pound does in this country."
Duckett agreed: "Fairtrade should be extended to provide a fair deal for the agricultural workers working in the fields of Kent."
It is hoped that Fairtrade Fortnight (26 February-11 March) will spread the word about the benefits of trading fairly, which in turn will encourage consumers to switch to Fairtrade products to empower workers in developing countries to work for a better life.
Looking to the future, Barr said she hoped Fairtrade would have only a limited life span. "The long-term goal is that Fairtrade might not exist any longer, as all goods will be traded fairly," she explained.
What is Fairtrade?
The Fairtrade mark is an independent consumer label awarded by the Fairtrade Foundation which appears on products to provide a guarantee that disadvantaged producers in the developing world are getting a better deal.
More than five million people - farmers, workers and their families - across 58 developing countries benefit from the international Fairtrade system.
First created in the Netherlands in the late 1980s, the mark was introduced to the UK in 1994 when Green & Black's Maya Gold organic chocolate became the first product to carry it. Later that year the first beverages in the UK to receive the mark were Clipper Fairtrade tea and Cafédirect roast and ground and freeze-dried instant coffee.
Most tea, however, is grown on estates where the big concerns for workers are fair wages and decent working conditions.
Fairtrade standards stipulate that traders must pay a price to producers that covers the cost of sustainable production and living conditions, as well as pay a premium that enables them to invest in developing the future quality of the product. This ensures that workers are paid decent wages, are guaranteed the right to join trade unions and are able to obtain good housing and education. Minimum health and safety, as well as environmental standards, must be complied with, and forced or child labour is prevented.
Sales of Fairtrade products in the UK have exploded in the past 10 years, rising from £16.7m in 1998 to £195m in 2005. Mintel predicts that the Fairtrade market will be worth £230m by the end of 2006 and £547m by 2011.
There are now more than 2,000 products that carry the Fairtrade mark, the most common being bananas, coffee, tea, honey, sugar, wine and herbs and spices.
The Fairtrade Foundation
- Room 204, 16 Baldwin Gardens, London EC1N 7RJ
- Tel: 020 7405 5942
Cafédirect was founded in 1991 in response to the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement two years earlier, which had led to coffee prices falling to a 30-year low, exposing coffee farmers worldwide to major financial insecurity.
Set up by Oxfam, Traidcraft, Equal Exchange and Twin Trading, the company was launched to help boost the income and security of coffee growers in the developing world and strengthen their links with consumers in the West.
Central to Cafédirect's philosophy is its Gold Standard, which is a guarantee to always pay above the world market price for coffee and to support growers through a producer support and development programme.
In 2000 Cafédirect went into partnership with Costa Coffee and supplied the first Fairtrade espresso and tea to the high street.
Four years later it became a public company with the aim of being a business that balances making money with making lives better. The company is now jointly owned by its four founders, each of which has a 40% share, its producer groups, which have a 5% share, and 4,500 new investors, who own 55% of the Cafédirect shares.
Turnover of Cafédirect in 2005 was £19.75m, with food service sales accounting for 11% of this figure and growing 28% year-on-year. All of Cafédirect's 40-plus coffee, tea and hot chocolate products in both the retail and food service markets carry the Fairtrade mark.
On average, Cafédirect's products are between 12% and 15% more expensive than the non-Fairtrade equivalent hot drinks. "We are mindful of making our price point affordable to most caterers, otherwise there is no chance for us to be a key player in the sector," says Sylvie Barr, the company's head of marketing.
The company works with 250,000 coffee, tea and cocoa farmers through 37 Fairtrade-registered grower organisations across 12 countries. On average, 60% of its profits every year are invested into the growers' businesses.
Mark Lewis, editor of Caterer and Hotelkeeper, chairman
Sylvie Barr, head of marketing, Cafédirect
Michael Duckett, catering manager, NHS Royal Brompton Hospital
James Hoffman, barista, La Spaziole
Mark Parfait, food development director, Harbour & Jones
Peter Sulston, managing director, student catering, Scolarest
Keith Shearer, executive head chef, Malmaison
Brian Turner, president, Academy of Culinary Arts, and chef-proprietor, Brian Turner Mayfair at the Millennium Hotel London Mayfair