As Fairtrade products enjoy a boom in popularity, UK retailer Co-op has taken the plunge by switching all its own-branded chocolate bars to Fairtrade. This is unlikely to be as ill-fated a move as Iceland’s wholesale switch to organic products last year; indeed, other supermarkets will no doubt be monitoring its progress very closely.


UK sales of Fairtrade chocolate are set to double, according to the Co-op, as it replaces its entire existing own-brand range with a new range of Fairtrade chocolate bars. This is a massive boost for the Fairtrade movement, which has struggled to make an impact on consumers since the 1970s. Instead of leaving producers of crops such as cocoa and coffee in developing countries reliant on fluctuating global markets, the movement pays them a stable income.


The Co-op has always been ethically minded. Its grocery stores were the first in the UK to introduce fairly traded bananas, mangos and wine. And it was the first retailer to introduce its own-branded Fairtrade chocolate, called Divine.


The company’s values place it at the forefront of green consumerism as it becomes increasingly potent in Europe. Not only have Fairtrade sales risen by 40% in the past year in the UK, ethical home hygiene products, organic food and drink and natural personal care products are all growing rapidly.


However, timing is critical. Last year, Iceland was the first UK supermarket to trial a full conversion of its products to organics. But demand failed to meet expectations and the trial ended in disarray.


But because the Co-op’s switch focuses on single product category it is far less risky. The retailer has also been able to track the performance of its Divine chocolate bars and therefore calculate consumer uptake of Fairtrade chocolate.


Even so, green markets are typically slow to develop and provide minimal returns if entered prematurely. While the Co-op is to be commended for its pioneering spirit, for most retailers the best strategy is to wait until green markets have gained broad appeal and develop a strong product based on the experience of others. Hence, other supermarkets will be watching the Co-op’s progress very keenly.


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