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Mon, Jul 21, 2003 - Page 12 News List

In Asia, glitzy brand names trump `fairtrade' label


The global campaign to sell "fair trade" coffee, chocolate and other common consumer products is a long way from succeeding in Asia as the region's middle and upper classes pay scant attention to social issues when shopping, industry players and social campaigners say.

The fair trade campaign has made steady progress over the past decade in Europe and North America, with some products taking more than 15 percent of the market in countries such as Switzerland, England and the Netherlands.

The primary focus of the campaign is to ensure farmers and other workers in developing countries are paid enough for their products to cover production costs and ensure they live above the poverty line.

As the most powerless group in the supply chain, millions of these people have been forced to sell their produce for unsustainably cheap prices, while exploitative middlemen and multinationals enjoy the profits, according to Oxfam and other social rights groups.

The program has intensified amid collapsing commodity prices, with the fall in the value of raw coffee falling from US$3.00 a pound in 1997 to less than US$0.70 among the highest profile examples.

More than 130 products, including coffee, tea, sugar, spices, honey, chocolate, juices, coco and fruit, are now sold under the "Fairtrade" label across Europe.

In contrast, Oxfam and the Fairtrade Foundation told reporters Japan is the only Asian country to have a fair trade labeling system and awareness of the suffering behind many common products is depressingly low.

"It really hasn't penetrated Asia's consumer market yet," Oxfam's campaign and policy advocacy coordinator in Hong Kong, Maria Felizco, said.

Even in Singapore, one of the wealthiest nations in the region, fair trade equals no trade.

Cold Storage, a successful supermarket chain that targets the upper end of the market in Singapore, reflected the low state of awareness in its one-line response to inquiries about what fair trade products the company sells.

"We are not in a position to comment on the fair trade policy at present as the policy is still very new to the retail industry in Asia," a Cold Storage spokeswoman said.

Although campaigners in Europe and North America directly pressure supermarkets and other retailers to sell fair-trade products, they say the onus is largely on the shoppers to make the changes.

UK-based Fairtrade Foundation spokeswoman Eileen Maybin said major progress in British fair trade came when consumers started to pressure the big chains.

"The breakthrough was consumer led," Maybin said. "It came when they started to ask the supermarkets to start stocking fair trade products."

But although Asia is home to many of the producers the NGOs are trying to help, Oxfam's Felizco said the region's growing middle and wealthy classes show little support at the check-out counter for their struggling cousins.

"Asia's middle class has been really looking to brand names and it will take a lot of work to change the mindset and [have consumers] look into the social issues behind the products," she said.

Despite the lack of awareness, NGOs say there have been some signs the fair trade campaign is beginning to gain low-level momentum in parts of Asia.

As one of the most recognizable brands in the world, US coffee chain Starbucks recently began selling some fair trade labeled coffee in many of its Asian outlets.

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