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In all fairness: How to consume with a clear conscience

Few big companies fare well when it comes to ethical standards, but change may be in the air

Ethics can be hard to hang on to when you’re shopping, and once you start looking closely at your purchases you will find few brands that are completely without sin.

Ethical Consumer, a British organisation, has been helping people shop more fairly for almost 30 years. A trawl of its website reveals that Tesco is under a boycott because it sells live turtles, tortoises and frogs in its Chinese stores. It has also been criticised over its food labelling, use of palm oil and its supply chains.

Procter and Gamble is on the list for its continued use of animal testing; while there is a boycott of Amazon over its “outrageous tax avoidance”. Even the British Heart Foundation has not escaped Ethical Consumer’s attention, because of animal testing. The site also lists the best and worst foods to buy (from an ethical perspective): few big brands fare well.

In the baked-beans category, the last four places are taken up by Heinz organic, Heinz original, HP and Branston. In mayonnaise, Hellmann’s finishes last, scoring one out of 20, while the least ethical ketchups are those by Heinz and HP, tied at joint last on six points.

Last year, Oxfam published a report on the social and environmental impact of world’s 10 largest food and drink companies, including Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola, Danone, Unilever, and Nestlé.

Few did well, but Associated British Foods (which makes Patak’s sauce and Twinings tea), and the owner of Penney’s, had a particularly poor record, in the developing world, in the treatment of women workers, farmers in general and over water supplies.

Following Ethical Consumer’s guidance religiously would make shopping very difficult and expensive. Most of the brands at the top of its lists are unfamiliar to us, but many come with a word we are familiar with: fairtrade. While that word does not mean that every link of the supply chain is totally above board, by buying products with that label we are doing something to make sure small producers in poor parts of the world are not being exploited.

Smart brands increasingly sign up to the notion of ethical consumption and giving people an incentive to buy that transcends price and quality.

Peter Gaynor, executive director of Fairtrade Ireland, says sales of Fairtrade products have more than doubled since 2008, although much of the increase is not because people have consciously bought more of them but because big-name chocolate brands such as Mars and Cadbury started to use Fairtrade on mainstream products. Sales are over €200 million.

More support is needed – particularly from the Irish retail sector. Its support of the Fairtrade movement could be, at best, described as partial. Today, three bananas in every 10 consumed in the UK is a Fairtrade one and several retailers – including Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Co-op – have switched 100 per cent of their bananas to Fairtrade. In Switzerland the figure is even higher: 50 per cent of all bananas sold there are Fairtrade. In Ireland the figure is closer to 5 per cent.

Lidl sells 25 per cent Fairtrade bananas and if they can do that and make a profit what are the other retailers in Ireland doing?” asks Gaynor.

In Germany, sales of Fairtrade roses account for more than 30 per cent of the total market but in Ireland that figure is closer to 1 per cent.

Retailer buy-in
Retailers “have not really bought into the movement like they could have,” says Gaynor. “It is not just about consumers making choices, it is about retailers making it easier for consumers to make those choices.”

He says there is a “hard core who I would describe as ethical consumers who go out of their way to source products which have been sourced ethically but that may be only 5 or 10 per cent of consumers. Another 40 per cent of people want to do the right thing but the right thing has to be put in front of them.”

If Irish retailers sold more Fairtrade products they would be pushing an open door. Awareness of the Fairtrade concept in Ireland is at 82 per cent – the second highest in Europe after the UK. According to

Fairtrade Ireland, 95 per cent of Irish people believe companies play an important role in protecting the environment and 89 per cent think companies can reduce poverty through the way they do business. A significant 71 per cent believe shopping choices can make a difference to farmers and workers in poor countries.

But what about price? Gaynor argues that Fairtrade does not necessarily mean dearer. “The difference is at the point of sale between the grower and the supplier, not the final selling price. In our world the price differential can be peanuts, but if you are making €200 a year then a very small increase in our terms can make a very big difference.”


First item in each category is Fairtrade, second is non-Fairtrade

Tea Bags

Bewleys Special Reserve Fairtrade 80s 250g €3.50

Lyons Gold 80s 250g €3.98

Ground Coffee

Bewley’s Fairtrade Guatemala Fresh Coffee 227g €4.49

Costa Roast & Ground Coffee 200g €4.75

Instant Coffee

Alcafe Fairtrade Coffee 100g €2.79

Maxwell Hou se Mild Blend 100g €3.50


Tate & Lyle Demerara Sugar €1.59

Shamrock Demerara Sugar 500g €2.15


Fairtrade Bananas six-pack €1.59

Eat Me Bananas five-pack €1.99


Choceur Fairtrade Dark Chocolate 100g €1.39

Tesco Finest Swiss Dark Chocolate 100g €1.89

Ice cream

Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie 500ml €5.89

Haagen-Dazs Belgian Chocolate 500ml €6.10

Red wine

Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2013, Fairglobe, Western Cape, South Africa €5.99

Super Valu
Long Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, South Africa €10.49

White wine

Marks & Spencer
Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Peacock Tail, Stellenbosch, South Africa €12.29

Five Climates Sauvignon Blanc, South Africa, €16.69


Fairtrade: regarded as the gold standard.
Rainforest Alliance: a weaker version.
Soil Association: campaigns for healthy, humane and sustainable food, farming and land use.
Marine Stewardship Council: sustainably sourced fish.
Forest Stewardship Council: guarantee that the product comes from responsible sources.
Leaping Bunny logo: no animal testing.