How important is Fairtrade for brands?

This week saw Fairtrade Fortnight kick off with Mars announcing that all cocoa used in the manufacture of its flagship Mars Bar would be Fairtrade-certified by autumn 2015. It is just a part of its massive corporate commitment to sustainable sourcing, but is there a line dividing CSR and ethical marketing?

Mars: Mars Bars will be made using Faitrade cocoa from autumn 2015
Mars: Mars Bars will be made using Faitrade cocoa from autumn 2015

Corporate social responsibility is these days better known by its abbreviation, CSR, a testament to how far it has moved up the corporate agenda and into the minds of consumers. Terms such as 'sustainability' and 'ethics' are no longer limited to the lexicon of the tie-dye-clothed hippy, but increasingly part of the everyday vocabulary of the besuited marketer.

Chris Arnold, creative director, Creative Orchestra and author of Ethical Marketing & The New Consumer, points out that Fairtrade still partly has a trendy appeal among the middle classes and Christian groups - who like to be seen to buy particular products for ethical reasons.

Many of us have a sense of justice that means we don’t like to see other human beings being bullied and exploited and that’s the appeal

"Many of us have a sense of justice that means we don’t like to see other human beings being bullied and exploited and that’s the appeal," he adds. "For tea and coffee, and in fast-food it’s become quite important. It’s important for the consumer to see they’ve got an ethical option."

Mars leads fairtrade for brands

Mars is by far and away the biggest consumer brand owner giving consumers that ethical option. This week, the group announced that all the cocoa used in the manufacture of its eponymous Mars Bar would be Fairtrade-certified by this autumn.

Why is it so important for brands?

"There are a number of reasons," explains Lucy Cotterell, UK strategy director Mars Chocolate UK.

"One is that consumers have been saying for a long time that they expect big brands to do the right thing - they care where their food comes from." And Mars, as a responsible manufacturer is fulfilling its moral obligation.

"We will now have our top three brands all certified," she adds. "It’s big step. I do think that consumers are increasingly expecting that manufacturers do the right thing. It’s intrinsically important to put the farmer first."

CSR advantages

While brand owners achieving Fairtrade status has clear advantages for internal CSR targets and policies, while resonating with staff, there are clear external, marketing advantages in adopting the mark.

Barbara Crowther, director policy and public affairs, Fairtrade Foundation highlights that Fairtrade can mean different things to different brands.

"I think that Fairtrade-certified products play a slightly different role depending on the brand itself," she says. "For some small brands, and we work with a lot of small brands, Fairtrade can actually help them attract the spotlight, because we’re a household name as the UK’s leading ethical label."

Crowther cites newcomer soft drink brand Karma Cola. "For new brands like Karma Cola, for them to come on to the marketplace with Fairtrade sugar and hook into Fairtrade’s network and conversation and position them as an ethical brand is very important," she says.

Fairtrade gives a marketing advantage

While the Karma brand has yet to achieve a listing with a major retailer, its Fairtrade status lends it a certain gravitas and, more important commercially, a marketing advantage.

Fairtrade tends not to be actively marketed by brands, not publicly marketed in terms of ads, but it is marketed through third-party organisations, such as the church on Sunday mornings

But brands do not necessarily do much themselves to market their Fairtrade status, Crowther stresses.

"For brands like Mars, they don’t need the Fairtrade mark to boost sales and attention," she says. "The Fairtrade mark offers very simple cut-through and additional assurance for people buying brands that they are getting independent verification that they are buying ethical cocoa."

Arnold adds: "Fairtrade tends not to be actively marketed by brands, not publicly marketed in terms of ads, but it is marketed through third-party organisations, such as the church on Sunday mornings."

Fairtrade Fortnight

Fairtrade is currently celebrating Fairtrade Fortnight with activity including ads in Metro featuring 10 of Fairtrade’s partner brands.

These partnerships demonstrate that brand involvement with Fairtrade runs deeper than meeting a set of (admittedly stringent) criteria and being awarded a stamp of approval on their packaging. It's a relationship that also enables them to tap into Fairtrade’s extensive network, which spans retailers, events and activities at schools.

"When companies work with Fairtrade they are not just buying the label that sits on the product," Crowther says.

There are also over 500 local Fairtrade campaigns and 5,000 schools running awareness campaigns, promoting both products and the livelihoods and issues affecting farmers. Meanwhile Fairtrade representatives and partners are instrumental in going into shops and businesses and persuading them to use Fairtrade products.

But Mars would rather be seen to be forging ahead with its ambitious Fairtrade aspirations - which will culminate in making all its cocoa sourced sustainably by 2020 - for altruistic over commercial reasons.

We’re trying to remind people that they’re putting producers’ lives in their shopping baskets

‘For us it’s not really about driving sales or competitive advantage," says Cotterell. "Yes, we were the first global company to commit - but it’s about doing the right thing.

Indeed, she drives home the point that Mars’s Fairtrade ambitions would undermine its CSR principles were they designed purely to distinguish it from its rivals. "The challenge is too big for any one player to fix on their own," she says.

Too big for one player to fix

The Fairtrade mark currently appears on more than 5,000 products, and the organisation is "engaged in very constructive conversations with companies every day of the week".

"We’re mindful it’s been a tough economic market with a lot of discounting in the grocery sector as a whole," Crowther says. "We’re trying to remind people that they’re putting producers’ lives in their shopping baskets."

And as long as consumers’ consciences are focused on the ethics and provenance of their foods and drinks, that’s a powerful marketing proposition.

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