'Fairtrade' & 'Fairly Traded' logos examined on the basis of consumer understanding

The ‘Fairtrade’ logo was intended to stand as a collective guarantee of ethical trading but last year there was a move away by Sainsbury’s and Green & Black to their own ‘Fairly Traded’ certifications. The underlying difficulty with voluntary labelling and these sorts of certifications is that the standards that attach to them are unknown; also there is the risk of confusion for consumers.

Welfare and sustainability as specific legal requirements were left out of the EU Food Information to Consumers Regulation 1169/2011 as the difficulties in reaching agreement, or at least consistency, across such varied food sectors were enormous. Therefore, there are no absolute legal standards for these voluntary claims, they depend on the objectives and requirements of the company using them. In relation to ‘Fairtrade’ or ‘fairly traded’ the consumers are unlikely to know anything more than the clue being in the word used, of fairness with suppliers. This is a broad general claim that is then completely open to food producers to make in another way with voluntary statements and claims on their packaging. With voluntary claims of these kind there is a raised expectation of standards and some positive substantiation is required if challenged by trading standards or the Advertising Standards Authority ('ASA') but there are no hard and fast rules that would apply other than those implied to the consumer and those the company chooses to implement itself.  

The first ASA ruling considering these issues was published this month. This concerned Sainsbury’s ‘Fairly Traded’ Red Label tea. Sainsbury’s provided a link through to further information on the Sainsbury’s Fairly Traded Programme and the fairly traded wording was provided differently from that of other teas with the ‘Fairtrade’ logo.

However, Stella Creasy MP challenged whether the claim "Fairly Traded":

  1. misleadingly suggested a connection to the Fairtrade scheme; and
  2. was misleading as to the ethical standards that applied to the products.

On the first point, the ASA found the fact that Sainsbury’s own brand tea products (Red Label and Ceylon) used two different fair trade schemes that this was likely to cause confusion for consumers, who might assume that the packaging of the Red Label tea was using ‘Fairly Traded’ as a descriptive term to convey that it was part of the official Fairtrade scheme rather than that ‘Fairly Traded’ was itself the name of a separate scheme run by Sainsbury’s.  Further information was provided via a clickable link but it was considered it would not be obvious that it was a logo for a particular scheme, rather than merely a description.

The ASA considered the Fairtrade brand and scheme run by the Fairtrade Foundation was the most well-known fair trade scheme, and consumers were likely to be aware of that scheme, whereas they might not know about the existence of other, similar schemes.  Because the ASA considered the ad did not make sufficiently clear that ‘Fairly Traded’ related to a separate scheme run by Sainsbury’s, they concluded that the ad was misleading.

However, on the second point, the ASA considered that consumers would understand from the claim that a product was ‘Fairly Traded’ that the tea was produced as part of a scheme that involved the principles of fair trade. It was accepted that such schemes could involve different elements, and consumers were unlikely to have a detailed understanding of how those schemes worked. However, that consumers were likely to assume broadly that they would involve measures to ensure that fair prices were paid to producers and to ensure the standards of working conditions.  A detailed overview was provided by Sainsbury’s and the ASA accepted that the Sainsbury’s scheme included such measures. There were divergences, particularly in that although the Sainsbury’s scheme would be audited independently it currently had no independent verification. However, the ASA overall considered that the measures around the payment of fair prices and the working conditions were likely to be consistent with consumers’ assumptions on what a ‘fairly traded’ product might be, and therefore the claim “Fairly Traded” was unlikely to materially mislead consumers as to the ethical standards applied to the products.

The stipulation that has resulted from this ASA ruling is not therefore that the existence of other schemes is necessarily misleading, per se, but that it is important for food producers to make it sufficiently clear that products labelled 'Fairly Traded' were part of a separate scheme.

This is an important distinction and means there is no exclusiveness provided to ethical words and marketing but that confusion between specific schemes should be avoided; particularly where one might be thought to be taking advantage of the much broader knowledge-base and reputation of another.

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