British supermarket group Sainsbury’s has launched its own in-house sustainability standard, provoking backlash from The Fairtrade Foundation and Fairtrade producers alike. Developed as part of its Sustainability Standards Program, the new ‘Fairly Traded’ label is Sainsbury’s attempt to simplify the complex landscape of certifications, while providing more direct support to farmers. But the Fairtrade community fears the move will put the producer-buyer relationship out of whack, with producers ultimately coming out on the losing end.
The ‘Fairly Traded’ mark is launching as part of a pilot for Sainsbury’s range of Red Label and Gold Label teas and, depending on its success, could expand across Sainsbury’s product portfolio.
“Sourcing with integrity has always been at the heart of Sainsbury’s business — offering customers high quality products with a provenance they can trust,” said Mike Coupe, Chief Executive at Sainsbury’s. **“**As our farmers and their communities face mounting challenges, we want to advance the way we work with them over the long-term — so that we can secure their businesses, providing them and their communities with a better quality of life and in so doing secure the future supply of great products our customers love for many years to come.”
As part of the pilot, tea farmers will continue to receive a guaranteed minimum price for their crop, in addition to a social premium — additional money that goes into a communal fund for workers and farmers to use — much like under the Fairtrade agreement.
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According to Sainsbury’s, the program aims to go beyond financial support, providing producers with tailored strategic advice, data and practical support to help them respond to specific challenges, such as climate change. Programs and the application of social premium funds will be independently audited and evaluated by an advisory board comprised of charities, academic institutions and NGOs.
“We don’t pretend to have all the answers — far from it — and that’s why these pilots are about testing and developing new approaches, collaborating with expert partners and listening to our farmers,” Coupe added. “In this way, we can find out what works and what can be taken to scale and adopted elsewhere, be it internationally or here in the UK, to secure sustainable supply chains that benefit our farmers and their communities and our customers too.”
But as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The Fairtrade Foundation and Fairtrade producers are viewing the move as a slap in the face and were quick to condemn the program, stating that it falls below the core principles of Fairtrade and threatens to take control away from farmers.
“Fairtrade and Sainsbury’s have worked together for many years and we are rightfully proud of what we have achieved from some of the world’s most marginalized farmers. Whilst we welcome and expect companies to work towards improving social, economic and environmental outcomes within their supply chains, we don’t believe the execution of this current model will, on balance, deliver positive changes for tea farmers. Therefore, at this stage we are unable to partner with the Sainsbury’s Foundation as it does not yet meet our core principles, particularly in the area of producer empowerment,” Michael Gidney, CEO of the Fairtrade Foundation said in a statement.
Approximately 229,000 farmers will be affected by these changes and in an open letter to the company, tea producers from across East and Central Africa and Southern Africa Networks of Fairtrade Africa have expressed their disapproval of the move.
“We told Sainsbury’s loud and clear: your model will bring about disempowerment. We are extremely concerned about the power and control that Sainsbury’s seeks to exert over us. We work for, OWN our product and OWN our premium. We see the proposed approach as an attempt to replace the autonomous role which Fairtrade brings and replace it with a model which no longer balances the power between producers and buyers,” the letter stated.
Gidney has called on Sainsbury’s to commit to a thorough monitoring and evaluation of the tea pilot, to prove impact before any further expansion.
Coinciding with its ‘Fairly Traded’ announcement, Sainsbury’s stated its intent to work towards meeting the requirements of full ISEAL membership. While ISEAL provided some support to Sainsbury’s in its work on developing the Sustainability Standards Program, it was not involved in setting up the tea pilot nor did the certification body have knowledge of it prior to the public announcement.
“ISEAL’s mission is to strengthen sustainability standards systems for the benefit of people and the environment. We aim to provide a resource to companies, governments and NGOs on how to develop credible standards systems. By building a collaborative moment the aim is to achieve a significant and increasing impact on the sustainability of products and services worldwide. In this spirit, ISEAL worked with Sainsbury’s,” ISEAL said in a statement.
“ISEAL reviewed the standard-setting, assurance and impacts systems that underpin Sainsbury’s Sustainability Standards Program and made recommendations for improvement and alignment with requirements in ISEAL’s Code of Goods Practices and Credibility Principles. The principles of transparency and engagement are two Credibility Principles that underpin good practice when setting up and implementing a credible sustainability standards system. ISEAL strongly encourages Sainsbury’s to uphold the Credibility Principles to which it has publically committed.”
Despite the backlash, Sainsbury’s stands by its claim that the program is in the best interest for producers and will help simplify the eco-labelling process if the program is scaled up to other commodities.
‘Fairly Traded’ tea is slated to hit shelves in June.