The Fairtrade Foundation‘s in-tray is growing. The charity oversees the relationships between farmers and manufacturers and, with the likes of Nestle, Cadbury and Unilever extending their presence in Fairtrade, the foundation has a key role in organising farmers and checking companies are paying a fair price. Harriet Lamb, the foundation’s executive director, talked to Michelle Russell about the impact big brands have had on Fairtrade, consumer awareness and the international potential of the category.

just-food: Has the focus of Fairtrade changed with bigger brands and major companies coming on board?

Harriet Lamb: Absolutely not. We have a fairly ruthless focus on tackling poverty through trade and ensuring a better deal for disadvantaged famers and workers. The real reason the public can trust the Fairtrade mark is because we trust no-one. We have a set of independent standards that are set through multi-stakeholder dialogue. We check that the farmers really are organised and that they’ve decided democratically how to spend the money. We make sure that the companies really are buying as directly as possible from those organised farmers and that they’re paying them a fair price and the premium. That’s what’s exciting for us: how can we engage with companies, not to do Fairtrade as a nice sideline but to take it right to the heart of their businesses?

j-f: When Nestle switched KitKat in the UK to Fairtrade in December, human right organisations questioned the firm’s commitment. Was this fair?

Lamb: KitKat is one of their crown jewels. This wasn’t a small sideline. This was taking their biggest-selling bar and saying we’re going to make it Fairtrade. The reason they couldn’t do that overnight was because we needed to do more work with the farmers in Cote d’Ivoire first. The commitment is there to make the four- and two-finger KitKat Fairtrade but it’s working at the pace of the farmer.

Commentators are looking at the whole of Nestle and all of its practices worldwide, whereas Fairtrade is a product mark. When you put that on a product you know it has come from disadvantaged farmers, that they’re been paid a fair price. We’re not trying to make any other comments about the company as a whole. We don’t claim to be the solution to all the problems in the world. Our focus is on how we can drive change for the farmers. If you waited until every company was perfect until they could go Fairtrade, then I think you’d be waiting a rather long time.

j-f: Following Green & Black’s announcement to go 100% Fairtrade, do you think there is a pressure for others, like Nestle and Cadbury, to switch more of their brands to the mark?

Lamb: Let’s be realistic: these are sometimes fairly major programmes with farmers. We have to go at the pace of the farmers and in some cases you have to work with very complex supply chains. And then there’s the sourcing of the ingredients and that takes time. The fantastic thing is the speed that Cadbury has already made. A year ago they announced Cadbury Dairy Milk was going Fairtrade in the UK and Ireland. That was so well-received by the public that in a relatively short space of time they announced a roll-out to Japan, Australia and New Zealand. That was a pretty fast roll-out across the world for Dairy Milk. They were overwhelmed by the positive response that they got from the public and that may encourage them to take it further.

j-f: How long has the Foundation been working with ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s on its move to 100% Fairtrade?

Lamb: They’ve had a number of Fairtrade ranges since around 2006, so we’ve been working with them for a couple of years. We then started to talk about how we could extend that and thought: ‘Let’s go for the really big, bold ambition and see if we could make all of their ice cream across the world Fairtrade’. It took a long time because of all their ingredients. We had to work through all the sugar, nuts, cocoa. It has been quite a major and difficult project because they didn’t want to announce it until they were sure they could honour their commitment. But it’s fabulous and Ben & Jerry’s are so thrilled about it. They think it’s absolutely the right thing for their company.

j-f: Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen has said moving to complete Fairtrade compliance faced opposition from Unilever in the US because the mark is not as widely recognised in the country as it is in Europe. Are bigger corporations generally slower to respond?

Lamb: It is the smaller, 100%-Fairtrade companies, the pioneer brands, who opened the way. The first to adopt Fairtrade were companies like Traidcraft or Divine Chocolate – companies who were 100% committed to Fairtrade. From very early on, they’ve all been very aware that if we’re going to take it to scale and really enable millions of farmers and workers to benefit, then we need to engage more mainstream businesses. Fairtrade is celebrating 15 years of the mark this year and in that time we’ve seen how gradually it has been taken up by larger companies.

It’s not only the smaller companies. Sainsbury’s were the first to stock Maya Gold and are still leading today with all their own labels, which is a very, very significant commitment by a major company. What we did see last year was a feeling of people taking Fairtrade right to the heart of their businesses. The mainstream businesses are beginning to really understand the depth of the public concern about Fairtrade.

j-f: Despite the recession, there has clearly been a demand for Fairtrade.

Lamb: The public have stayed loyal to Fairtrade despite the recession. Sales have continued to rise and it’s because, in a time of recession, you go back to your core values. They care about their close family and then, by extension, they care about farmers and workers overseas. Also, I think the public are very angry about the recession, how it was caused. The greed and the recklessness. That has led them to feel more distrustful of the banks and businesses than ever…more determined that businesses should play by their responsibilities of wider society and the wider economy. Fairtrade tries to adapt to that mood of the public about wanting business to play fair and to recognise and fulfil their business responsibilities to society. Fairtrade is one way businesses can do that, and the public can encourage them to do it by asking for Fairtrade and rewarding them by buying products with the Fairtrade mark.

j-f: Fairtrade is well known in Europe. How much potential is there for the mark outside of Europe?

Lamb: Fairtrade is in 80 countries: 58 developing countries where there are farmers and workers and 22 that buy Fairtrade. That’s right across Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the US and South Africa. We think the future will be in countries like South Africa, like India, like Brazil, the growing developing countries where there will be farmers selling on Fairtrade terms but where there is also a very strong middle class. In India, there are as many middle-class people as in the whole population of Europe, so the potential is huge in those countries. The next step is to build awareness, for example, in the US. That is a huge consumer market but actually, as Ben & Jerry’s were saying, the awareness of Fairtrade is much lower in the US. The potential is there but it is definitely behind Europe. With the engagement of some big American brands like Ben & Jerry’s, coupled with the beginnings of the growth of the grassroots social movement in the US, we will see an explosion at some point in the US in the years to come.

j-f: What targets does the Foundation have in place for the next decade?

Lamb: We have an ambitious target that by the end of 2012 we would like to see half of all products [in the UK] Fairtrade. Could half of all the bananas in this country be Fairtrade? Could other small products get to about 10% Fairtrade? I think we’re at about 30% of bananas now, we’re at 30% of roast and ground coffee and 10% of tea. We will also continue to drive public awareness and knowledge and understanding of Fairtrade and to encourage companies to engage with more depth, really taking it to the heart of their business. Globally, we have a target that by 2015 we should have ten times the sales of Fairtrade globally.