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Fair play when shopping

From coffee to cloves, ice cream to face cream, there are now a staggering 4,500 Fairtrade products available. In such price-sensitive times, when we're seeing declining sales and consumer down-switching, Fairtrade has defied the odds and experienced growth (see page 4). Intrigued, Green Light set out to discover more about consumer awareness, understanding, attitudes and behaviours towards this recession-resilient offering.

We explored motivations and barriers to purchase through group discussions and found that, overall, Fairtrade is perceived positively. Helping others through buying Fairtrade carries a feel-good-factor; matched only by "buying British" which is also tugging at our heart strings, and our purse strings. So at first glance, we may be fooled into thinking that the great British public are an honourable and altruistic bunch focused on ethical sourcing. Alas not, well not entirely.

The issue of ethical sourcing is not as straightforward as one might think. Consumers deploy a relatively convoluted, even contradictory, justification system when it comes to the products they buy. Consumers are constantly struggling to strike a balance between their heads and their hearts. In the midst of this complex environment, Fairtrade seems to be standing strong, or even winning out. So what is it that makes it special?

Fairtrade has entered the mainstream — it is no longer confined to the shelves of charity shops; it's an easily accessible alternative, placed next to the less virtuous competition. It is a low-risk substitute, mainly occupying lower value categories which tend to involve simpler purchase decisions.

Consumers are aware of what is good and what is bad, who the retail saints and sinners are, but they will still put this knowledge to one side and buy products that they acknowledge are “so cheap there is no way they could have been ethically sourced” … while returning home to ease their conscience with a Fairtrade cuppa. It's a balancing act. A step in the right direction. Fairtrade is better than "unfair trade" … but only as long as investment is low and quality is high.

The price of a marginally eased conscience is often a matter of pence when it comes to opting for the Fairtrade alternative. In some cases, consumers don't even need to opt in. One leading supermarket has taken away the choice and taken on the ethical responsibility by offering its customers no alternative to Fairtrade in some product categories.

With high consumer awareness, reasonable pricing for a guilt-free purchase, and the helping hand of the retailer, we start to understand why Fairtrade is prospering.

Consumers like to feel good, so whether it's coffee, cotton, or carnations, a Fairtrade purchase goes some way to cancelling out their guilt over their carbon footprint, bulging bin bags, and consumer culture. The belief is: doing something is better than doing nothing.

 

Andrea Higgins
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2009