Under its new and wide-ranging Sustainability Standards, the retailer is piloting a sustainability sourcing approach for its tea range, which sees the Fairtrade logo replaced with Sainsbury’s own ‘Fairly Traded’ mark, symbolising a new way of working which Sainsbury’s says will provide more direct support to its farmers.

If successful, the tea pilot – which affects more than 229,000 farmers – could be scaled up to other key commodities within Sainsbury’s supply chain, with a spokesperson for the retailer telling edie that the business is hoping to simplify a complex landscape of ethical certification marks and reinforce Sainsbury’s identity as a trusted brand.

“Sourcing with integrity has always been at the heart of Sainsbury’s business,” the company’s chief executive Mike Coupe said in a press statement. “As our farmers and their communities face mounting challenges, we want to advance the way we work with them over the long-term – so that we can secure their businesses, providing them and their communities with a better quality of life and in so doing secure the future supply of great products our customers love for many years to come.”

Step further

Under the Fairly Traded pilot, tea farmers supplying Sainsbury’s Red Label and Gold Label ranges will continue to receive a guaranteed minimum price for their crop along with a social premium – an additional sum of money which goes into a communal fund for workers and farmers to use – as they did under the Fairtrade agreement.

But Sainsbury’s claims the new approach will go a step further than the financial support offered through Fairtrade, with the retailer offering tailored strategic advice, data and practical support to help farmers respond to specific challenges, such as climate change. This on-the-ground support will be underpinned by the highest levels of data, independent audit and evaluation, and will be overseen by a new external advisory body made up of charities, academic institutions and NGOs.

The Fairtrade Foundation has been quick to condemn the move by Sainsbury’s, which remains the world’s biggest seller of Fairtrade products. The retailer’s Fairly Traded approach falls below the core principles offered by Fairtrade, and will take control away from producers, the organisation’s chief executive Michael Gidney has said.

“Whilst 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,” said Gidney.

‘Extremely concerned’

And in an open letter about the move, tea producers from across East and Central Africa and Southern Africa Networks of Fairtrade Africa stated: “We told Sainsbury’s loud and clear: your model will bring about disempowerment. We are extremely concerned about the power and control that Sainsbury’s seeks to exert over us.

“We work for, OWN our product and OWN our premium. 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.”

A spokesperson for Sainsbury’s has insisted the group’s farmers have been “fully supportive” of this new approach and that the only entity that will lose out through the move is the Fairtrade organisation.

“We’re matching all the benefits of Fairtrade, but also giving individually tailored, strategic advice to our farmers,” the spokesperson said. “We’re building upon the standards rather than moving away from them.

“Farmers are facing complex issues which they didn’t face before – whether it’s climate change, drought, famine, disease or political instability. These are issues that individual tea farmers are not able to deal with on their own.

“The Fairtrade Foundation itself loses out here, and that’s what’s prompted the backlash.”

Responding to these comments, a spokesperson for the Fairtrade Foundation later told edie: “We are a charity which is 50% owned by producers; our only interest is the marginalised farmers and workers we represent, people from some of the poorest countries worldwide.

“Sainsbury’s say their model is better than Fairtrade but what’s changing is that the retailer is replacing an experienced, transparent, independent, non-profit certification which is proven to reduce poverty, with an untested, proprietary model. And that’s why, when Sainsbury’s asked us to join a partnership, we couldn’t put our names to it. But most importantly, the farmers we represent said no.”

Brand value

Looking forward, the Sainsbury’s spokesperson stated that the new approach could help to simplify eco-labelling for the company if scaled up across other product ranges.

“One of the issues with certification is there’s just so many different labels,” the spokesperson added. “We’re a trusted brand – ethical sourcing is a core value of ours, it’s part of our identity and our customers know that. This new approach could potentially simplify all those certifications… we’re going to monitor this trial very closely for tea and then consider what our next steps are.”

Sainsbury’s Sustainability Standards are part of a new management framework to support the farmers of the company’s 35 key crops and ingredients in meeting the highest sustainability standards. The framework has been linked to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and has been peer-reviewed by 50 independent experts. Pilot projects are set to follow for wheat, potatoes, sugar and bananas.

The new range of Fairly Traded teas will be on Sainsbury’s shelves from June. The retailer has maintained its Fairtrade commitments to its premium ranges of own-brand teas, as well as its own-label Fairtrade bananas, coffee, chocolate and flowers.

Fairly Traded tea pilot: Fact sheet

Luke Nicholls

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