The retail value of ethical food sales went up by 24% last year to hit £1.59bn. Can a developing social conscience seriously become a worthy contender to value for money when it comes to shopping around asks Des King

If we are what we eat, then equally we’re defined by what we choose to buy. The conspicuous consumption of the 1980s was memorably typified by the likes of Gucci and Tag. The 21st century’s newly emergent shopping bag icons couldn’t be more differently labelled.

Knowing where the food on your table comes from and caring how it gets there has traditionally been driven by largely negative factors including concerns about health – the drop in egg consumption as a result of the salmonella scare; and the demise of the Sunday joint post-BSE to name but two.

Similarly, choosing not to buy from a particular country or manufacturer has long been the thinking man’s most accessible form of protest. We might have been powerless to do much about apartheid but we could boycott South African produce.

Post-Iraq, no doubt French farmers are already bracing themselves for the worst.

Shopping ‘ethically’ is an altogether different proposition – a mix of compassionate consumerism based squarely upon the wholly positive principle of ensuring a fair deal for largely third world producers – or a preference towards eco-friendly products incorporating natural ingredients.

Acting as an umbrella for over 130 different retail products, the Fairtrade Foundation has seen sales rise from £2.75M in 1994 to in excess of £63M last year. It’s estimated that the British public drinks 1.7M cups of Fairtrade tea, coffee and cocoa each day. Indeed, Fairtrade brands – which include Starbucks and Prêt À Manger own-label, plus of course, Cafédirect – now account for 14% of the domestic ground coffee market.

There are, no doubt, many home-based producers who may be thinking that the principle of paying a reasonable price should, like charity, start at home. Some of the larger multiples are already experimenting with the inclusion of limited duration ‘farmers’ markets’ in certain local stores. So that day may yet come.

Even more significantly, Fairtrade has been engaged in a feasibility study, in conjunction with the Soil Association since January, to determine how experience gained in the third world can be appropriately applied on behalf of the UK farming community.

In addition to tea, coffee and cocoa, Fairtrade is otherwise mostly about chocolate, honey and bananas. The recently redesigned Fairtrade mark apparently has a recognition response of 20% throughout the general public, with 43% claiming to have first gained awareness in-store.

Given the impact being made are there plans to introduce other products into the range? According to spokesperson Eileen Maybin, wine, rice and dried fruits are just three commodities currently being assessed. Citrus fruit and grapes from South Africa are also on the cards for the near future.

With its point of focus centred exclusively upon producers, Fairtrade has no real interest or influence over resultant pricing. Consumers may pay more but in reality the differentials are mainly absorbed by the manufacturer.

Despite paying up to three times as much for its coffee beans, Cafédirect tends to retail at around 15% higher than other peer brands. Current coffee values are running at a 30-year low, selling at around 70 cents. However, with the Fairtrade price for arabica beans held at $1.26, its producers are receiving almost double market rate.

“How the brand actually absorbs that extra cost is really up to them,” observes Eileen Maybin. “It makes a huge difference to the producer in Nicaragua or whoever – but in terms of the overall cost of the product, it’s not very much.”

Control over product packaging is likewise outside of Fairtrade’s remit. However, many of the licensees naturally choose to use recycled materials and incorporate other ethical issues into their packaging strategies says Ms Maybin. “Increasingly, packaging is also being used to tell more of the Fairtrade story.”

A good example is the producer endorsement carried on the Cafédirect instant coffee jar in addition to the distinctive Fairtrade mark itself. A quick inventory of the packaging used by Cafédirect, arguably the most high profile of the Fairtrade approved manufacturers, indicates a clear leaning towards the environmentally right-on approach. The 5065 premium instant coffee range comes in jars made from 70% recycled glass – clearly flagged up as a badge of honour – and uses a recyclable paper label and lightweight lid.

The roast and ground coffee is packaged in recyclable PETP laminate foil supplied by Amcor Flexibles. It incorporates the integral one-way Amcor SoftValve system which permits the release of carbon dioxide from freshly ground coffee. And, together with the oxygen barrier properties of the packaging, improves the freshness and taste over the duration of the product’s life.

Cartons for the corresponding Teadirect product are made from board from Alexir Packaging, sourced from renewable, sustainable forests. Eco-issues similarly apply to Coco-direct’s composite drum, made from 50% recycled material supplied by Sonoco.

The shining beacon of the ethical trade movement, Cafédirect looks after the interests of 1.3M tea and coffee growers throughout third world countries. It is the UK’s sixth largest coffee brand with a 1.9% market share. More significantly, in what was a static year for the category, Cafédirect coffee sales grew by 20% in value and 18.6% in volume during 2001, in turn encouraging interest from a number of multiples including Sainsbury and the Co-op in offering own-label Fairtrade equivalents.

Also increasingly high-profile is Green & Black’s chocolate, with a current poster campaign throughout the London Underground that stresses the use of ingredients rather than ethical imperatives as the key differentiation between itself and competitive brands.

Market share is just 1%, but recent growth of 40% year on year provides a clear indication of what may be to come. Significantly, the brand is repositioning itself on taste as the USP says Cluny Brown. “Initially, we were very strongly positioned as an organic product but what makes the product that bit different and better than something else is very much down to taste. That’s what we’ve been focusing on over the last two years.”

Green & Black’s ‘Maya Gold’ chocolate bar was the first product to be awarded the Fairtrade mark in 1994. In terms of top-end positioning, its nearest competitor is Lindt – which it out-prices at £1.45 compared with around £1.19.

“People are price-conscious but will they pay that 30% extra just because it’s organic or do they need something else? Yes they do. It’s got to taste good.

“So the way we’ve re-packaged the brand is to make it look much more premium, and more reflective of a quality product. Sales in London alone since we re-positioned and re-packaged the brand have grown by 80%.

“We’re seeing the emergence of a more caring consumer. People want to buy ethical products. They actually think they buy more ethical products than they do. In the end the product has to deliver. If it doesn’t you won’t go on buying it.”

Green & Black also tends to use recycled cartonboard and paperstock for all of its packaging. With the chocolate made in Italy, most of the labelling is sourced via Eurostampa, which also supplies into a number of drinks manufacturers such as United Distilleries.

Unlike commodity items such as tea and coffee, the chocolate category is largely brand driven which has impeded much impact from the own-label sector. Sainsbury has recently delisted its own organic chocolate.

This strong focus upon brands inevitably creates pressure on shelf exposure says Cluny Brown. “Our biggest marketing tool is our packaging. It’s where most people are going to see us. One of the things we’re thinking of doing next year is using the Maya Gold Easter egg to really flag up the Fairtrade element in quite a big way. Currently, it’s restricted to having the mark on the front, plus carrying some information on the back.”

That ethical consideration extends as far as the kitchen sink is evidenced by the continued take up of Belgian liquid detergents manufacturer Ecover’s eco-friendly products. Ecover now commands around 1.5% of the washing-up liquid category – valued in the UK at around £300M at retail pricing. It is the only supplier using natural plant and mineral ingredients working through to secondary degradation – the seamless re-absorption within the eco-system after use.

Ecover’s packaging was revamped by Van Genechten last year to present a less overt green image in order to encompass interested but less stridently eco-sensitive consumers likely to baulk at terminology such as petrochemical avoidance. It’s a balancing act calculated to draw in the less committed but concerned consumer without dumbing down the message for those already on board. It is ethics without tears and symptomatic of the way in which suppliers are seeking to broaden their market base.

“We target lighter greens because we know that the dark greens already understand us,” says Ecover UK’s marketing manager Clare Allman. “Our aim is to lead people in gently, and then when they want to investigate the product further to supply the answers for them. So our packaging is designed to be wholly acceptable on the kitchen window sill. What’s most important to us is to ensure that the message is getting out to as many people as possible.”

No compromise there; just marketing common sense. Ethical values extend through to packaging construction itself.