Ben & Jerry's says it's diving headlong into Fair Trade, and that by 2013, all of its flavors in all of its markets will be converted to Fair Trade Certified ingredients. And observers expect that the ice-cream brand's pioneering move will usher more consumers into the still-fuzzy Fair Trade fold -- and force other brands to follow.
The Burlington, Vt.-based company, which has been owned by giant Unilever for a decade, began introducing Fair Trade Certified-ingredients into some flavors back in 2005. And other major marketers, including Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks, Wal-Mart and Whole Foods Market, also offer some Fair Trade options.
But observers say it is the all-or-nothing nature of Ben & Jerry's announcement that makes this important. "It's the first 100% commitment from such a mainstream brand," Stacy Geagan Wagner, a spokesperson for TransFair USA, the nonprofit group that certifies ingredients as Fair Trade, tells Marketing Daily. (Cadbury's Green & Blacks, a niche brand in organic chocolate, pledged to switch 100% Fair Trade ingredients last month.)
And in some ways, it seems that Fair Trade's mainstream moment is nigh. Once seen as a fairly obscure concern focused on a product's price, consumers are increasingly sympathetic to the Fair Trade's implications for sustainability, the environment and the social and labor issues. In the U.S., 2008 -- the year the certification first began appearing on coffees in Starbucks and Wal-Mart -- sales climbed to $1.2 billion, up 20% from the prior year, Wagner says.
Still, the concept is foreign to more than two-thirds of U.S. shoppers, many of whom still grapple with the meaning of terms like "organic," "environmentally friendly" and sustainable:" Just 29% of U.S. consumers are familiar with the Fair Trade certification concept; globally, that familiarity is 50%, according to the group's most recent polling data.
And even among those who understand the concept, as many as 16% don't see such certifications as credible, says Liz Gorman, VP/corporate responsibility for Cone Inc., the Boston-based cause-related marketing firm.
But Ben & Jerry's, with its flair for social marketing (its Facebook page has more than a million fans, and it often links new-flavor launches to built-in fan groups provided by popular bands) hopes to change that. "Fair Trade is about making sure people get their fair share of the pie," company co-founder Jerry Greenfield says in the company's release. "The whole concept of Fair Trade goes to the heart of our values and sense of right and wrong. Nobody wants to buy something that was made by exploiting somebody else."
"I see it as the rise of the social consumer," says Wagner. "We have the ability to choose product A, which tastes great, or Product B, which also tastes great, but doesn't exploit anybody."
The transition, Ben & Jerry's says, involves "converting up to 121 different chunks and swirls, working across eleven different ingredients such as cocoa, banana, vanilla and other flavorings, fruits and nuts," in cooperatives that include 27,000 farmers.
Gorman says the move will serve to enhance Ben & Jerry's brand as a market leader, and further dispel the criticism that they have "sold out," an accusation that still dogs the company, even a decade later. "It is still a values-driven brand," she says, "and this Fair Trade move is evidence of that. They've really moved the needle for big companies."