Sainsbury’s Not Playing Fair with its Red Label Tea, Say Critics

British grocery chain Sainsbury’s is in hot water after online advertisements for its “Fairly Traded” tea were deemed too similar to the Fairtrade Foundation program by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

A group of Labor Members of Parliament complained to the advertising standards watchdog that the ads were misleading as they suggested to customers that the company’s products were certified in accordance with the global Fairtrade standards. The ASA subsequently banned the ads and ordered Sainsbury’s to take more care to distinguish itself sufficiently from Fairtrade, including ensuring that future packaging is not designed in a misleading way.

Sainsbury’s withdrew its own-brand Red Label tea from the Fairtrade scheme in June 2017 and started its own Fairly Traded range. The company claimed that its scheme was just as effective and that it would match Fairtrade’s minimum price as well as provide farmers with a “social premium” to invest in development programs. However, it was widely criticized for breaking with Fairtrade’s core principles, namely producer empowerment. Fairtrade’s premium fund is given directly to communities, and an association made up of farmers decides how the money is used; Fairtrade is 50% owned by farmers and producers. British charity Oxfam, one of the six founders of Fairtrade, called Sainsbury’s move a “regressive step” and expressed concerns that it would “fall short in tackling the deep-rooted issues that leave thousands of people earning too little to escape poverty.”

Sainsbury’s response to the recent complaint asserted that its logo was distinct from the Fairtrade mark and that the company is “committed to establishing long-term, open and fair relationships with their suppliers, ensuring they had the skills and capacity to manage their workers responsibly.”

The group of MPs alleged that Sainsbury’s was merely inflating its reputation in a money-saving effort; however, that claim was rejected by the ASA, noting that the Fairly Traded range does include measures to ensure the products are part of an ethical supply chain. Nevertheless, that the wording on its packaging is so similar to Fairtrade and the company was also advertising Fairtrade Ceylon tea was enough to cause confusion and mislead customers, according to the association.

The ASA was also asked to investigate whether the standards of Sainsbury’s Fairly Traded products matched up with expectations of fair trade. It concluded that although Sainsbury’s was operating independently from Fairtrade International, 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.”

In a statement, Sainsbury’s responded to the ruling: “We’re pleased the ASA recognizes the high ethical standards of our Fairly Traded tea pilot. We note their comments about the online advert and this has been updated accordingly.”

Sainsbury’s is not the first large company to pull out of the Fairtrade scheme. Starbucks also has its own independent certification, the “Coffee and Farmer Equity Practices” (C.A.F.E.) program. And Cadbury abandoned Fairtrade in 2016, creating its own “Cocoa Life” certification for its chocolate bars—an ongoing venture expected to be completed in 2019. (Ironically, Cadbury owner Mondelez International also owns Green & Blacks, which was the first product to ever carry the Fairtrade mark in the U.K.) The company’s Cocoa Life scheme operates “in partnership with Fairtrade,” according to Mondelez, allowing it to become an accountable partner with farming communities and to dramatically increase its use of sustainably sourced cocoa.

Many people, including Labor MP Stella Creasy, see this as “greenwashing”—a way for large companies to avoid paying Fairtrade prices, premiums, and other costs, but appearing to support those practices through their own customized schemes.

“When Sainsbury’s came to explain to us why it was abandoning Fairtrade tea, we warned that it wasn’t fair to consumers who trust these ethical standards to try to sell them tea under a similar name, so we’re pleased to see the ASA take action following our complaint,” said Creasy.

“This ruling should be a wake-up call for Sainsbury’s that backing out of the Fairtrade movement and pretending its Fairly Traded tea is the same won’t wash—the ASA agree how Sainsbury’s presents its products will confuse consumers. Put simply, its ‘fauxtrade’ tea is not the same thing and consumers deserve the right to know.”

Creasy said she hoped the ruling would encourage Sainsbury’s to restore its relationship with the Fairtrade organization. “On behalf of our constituents we will certainly continue challenging them to be part of this important scheme which helps food producers around the world.”

Sources: Beverage Daily, The Drum, Fairtrade, Starbucks, Independent