Time to slip on your fair trade shoes

YOU have nibbled your Fairtrade chocolate and washed it down with some Fairtrade coffee. Now you can stroll to buy your groceries with similar contentment, as Britain’s biggest shoe retailer has given us ethically friendly footwear.

Pop into your local branch of Clarks and you will see one of the most ground-breaking shoes on the market. The Khulani moccasin - named after the orphanage that inspired the initiative - is the first fair trade shoe to be offered by a mainstream retailer. They will be manufactured by villagers in Durban, South Africa, and sold in outlets in Britain and the United States.

Designed by Lance Clark, a sixth-generation member of the family, they are sleek, simple and stylish shoes. For each pair sold at 29.99, the orphanage will receive 5, with an additional 2 going to the village women who stitch them.

Clarks’ "Soul of Africa" range is based on its iconic Wallabee shoe, which was launched in the 1960s to create employment for out-of-work families in Kilkenny, Ireland. This time around, it is the children of South Africa who will benefit.

"I was invited to go to Durban and, as part of the trip, I visited an orphanage on the outskirts of the city," explained Lance Clark. "It was just a run-down house where villagers came and dropped off children. I cried when I saw them because they literally have no-one. What’s worse is that there are two million like them in the rest of the country, and a further two million in the whole of southern Africa. I knew we had to do something, and establishing a Fairtrade link seemed the best option. This way they are not living on hand-outs but generating their own income."

The project has worked well. Already, the village has received about 8,000 from shoe sales and, with continued success in British stores and further orders coming in from the US, the future looks bright.

The idea is by no means a new one. The Fairtrade movement has grown steadily since its launch in the early 1990s and celebrates the tenth anniversary of the official logo this year. There are now 250 retail products available, including Fairtrade footballs and wine, and last year turnover in the UK alone topped 100 million - up 46 per cent on 2002.

Over the past decade, our spending on Fairtrade products has rocketed - from 2.7 million in the whole of 1994 to 2 million a week by the end of 2003 - and our interest shows no sign of waning.

The UK fair trade market is now second in the world only to Switzerland, and in an effort to ride this enthusiasm for all things ethical, the large multinational companies that were once scorned for furthering the plight of third world producers are looking to get on board. Starbucks - which buys 1 per cent of the world’s coffee - has started using Fairtrade beans, while supermarket chains such as Tesco and Sainsbury have launched own-label Fairtrade ranges. A Mintel report found the Co-op was Britain’s Fairtrade champion, accounting for 10 per cent of all sales. It sells Fairtrade coffee and chocolate and is working on sourcing fair trade ingredients for its own-brand products such as biscuits and cakes.

With such growth, it is little surprise that the Fairtrade Foundation is aiming to double sales every two years, partly through diversification into new areas such as flowers, fruit and cotton.

John McAllion, a former MSP and now a campaigner with Oxfam, said it was consumers that had forced big business to get involved.

"The initiative has been such a success that we are now seeing mainstream companies adopting Fairtrade practices," he said. "Nestl has announced that they are looking into launching new Fairtrade products, and Marks & Spencer will soon sell only Fairtrade coffee. Consumer pressure is making this happen, because in Britain, particularly, shoppers want to know where and how their products are being made."

It is easy to see why these mainstream companies want their slice of ethical pie. Cafdirect, one of the first exclusively Fairtrade brands to launch in 1991, now enjoys a 6 per cent share of the UK ground coffee market. Once perceived as a second-rate charity option, it has proved itself as a high- quality choice, threatening other supermarket bestsellers with its added ethical value.

But, as Fairtrade moves from niche to mainstream, there is a greater focus on whether it really works and an increased confusion among some consumers as to what Fairtrade is about. In a recent survey, 39 per cent were able to correctly identify the Fairtrade mark, but 21 per cent said they didn’t know what it was about.

The questions consumers are asking are, do the third world producers really see the benefit of our higher prices, or is it just a clever marketing ploy? And, even if they do benefit, can the Fairtrade movement really impact the global economy?

"If you compare the living standards of those farmers within Fairtrade co-ops to those outwith them, the difference is enormous," Mr McAllion said. "Fairtrade farmers receive a guaranteed price which covers the cost of production and then a social premium on top of that which can be invested in schools and hospital clinics. Customers do pay well above the price of international markets, but they do so for a good reason.

"If you take coffee as an example, there are around 20 million coffee farmers around the world. Because of the recent slump in coffee prices, the majority of them struggle against hunger and poverty, and while the big coffee giants make a profit, the farmers have a very hard time.

"Obviously, there are many factors to consider, which is why we continue to campaign to the World Trade Organisation. Fairtrade is part of the answer, but it’s not the whole answer."

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