Trouble’s brewing: Sainsbury’s and Fairtrade tea

A quick-fire briefing on how Sainsbury’s is threatening the Fairtrade movement and an opportunity to sign a petition to ask Sainsbury’s not to ditch Fairtrade.

Twitter erupted this week with the news that Sainsbury’s has downgraded a selection of its own-brand teas from Fairtrade to a new self-initiated scheme called Fairly Traded. They sound very similar, but how are they different and what does it mean for those producing tea?

Here’s a quick five minute briefing:

Which products are affected?

Just Sainsbury’s own brand, Red Label and Gold Label teas. Taste The Difference and Premium Range teas will remain Fairtrade. Own-label Fairtrade bananas, coffee, chocolate and flowers won’t change either.

So why only change a few items?

Sainsbury’s argue that the Fairtrade scheme doesn’t allow for the fast-paced environmental changes of today’s world. Specifically they feel it doesn’t allow for the impact of climate change on the tea-growing industry.

Who will suffer from the impact of these changes?

Three major tea groups and their 228,000 co-operative members who grow tea used in Sainsbury’s Red and Gold label brand.

What’s replacing Fairtrade?

Sainsbury’s are creating their own Fairly Traded scheme which sets new ethical standards and introduces a different way to pay the major tea groups. 

What’s the difference?

It’s hard to say right now until more details of the new Fairly Traded scheme are released, but there’s one huge initial difference: Farmers will have to apply for the social premium. The Fairtrade Premium is extra money which goes into a communal fund where workers and farmers have the power to choose how to use it, to improve their social, economic and environmental conditions. But in Sainbury’s Fairly Traded scheme, the supermarket will control who gets approved and how they have to spend that investment. Critics say the new scheme takes power away from the farmers and gives it to profit-making organisations. The second major difference is that this new scheme will not be externally audited so it will be difficult to know if it is really fairly traded – we’ll only have Sainsbury’s word for it.

What do the farmers say about the situation?

In an open letter to Sainsbury’s, ten producers from across East and Central Africa said: “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.”

What does the Fairtrade Foundation have to say?

Chief executive of the Fairtrade Foundation, Michael Gidney said: “While 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.

What does Sainsbury’s have to say?

Sainsbury’s group chief executive, Mike Coupe said: “Ethical and sustainable sourcing are at the heart of our business and as the world changes we cannot stand still. That’s why this innovative pilot will build on our existing work and relationships and we’re aiming to deliver significant benefits for our farmers, our business and our customers. The business case is clear. Our farmers and growers can expect financial security through long-term relationships and a greater level of support to help them plan for their futures. At the same time we safeguard the future quality and availability of the great British cuppa for our customers.”

What’s next?

Until Sainsbury’s release more details of their Fairly Traded initiative it’s hard to know how much of a negative impact it will have on farmers and producers. But the initial signs aren’t good.

Seven charities, including Oxfam and Christian Aid have already urged Sainsbury’s to think again because they believe it will undermine the progress which has already been made over the last quarter-century in the developing world, particularly around better treatment of producers. In a letter to The Telegraph, they state: “The standards are unclear, and farmers and producers may no longer be able to decide themselves directly how money raised is spent to help their communities.”

The Fairtrade Foundation mark of recommendation remains the most comprehensive measurement of social, economic and environmental impact on the sourcing of food around the world. If in doubt, look out for the Fairtrade logo when next stocking up on your teabags, or buying your next cuppa.

What people are saying:

What can you do?

We’re joining a community of people who together, can raise our voices through a petition to Sainsbury’s, asking them not to ditch the Fairtrade label. You can sign it via