Fair trade organisations are pursuing advertising tactics used by large companies rather than appealing to ethics, according to new academic research.
Dr Caroline Wright, a sociology lecturer at Warwick University, argues that fair trade producers are increasingly selling their products on the basis of consumers' self-interest, with the ethical message taking second place.
Wright, who studied Cafedirect's advertising campaigns for her paper Consuming Lives, Consuming Landscapes, likens their slogans "Think it" and "Drink it" to Nike's "Just do it". She also compares the campaign strapline, "Do yourself a favour: discover fresh coffees", to L'Oreal's infamous "Because I'm worth it".
The message to shoppers is that fair trade purchases are good for them as well as third world producers. "Trust your Taste", the slogan of Fairtrade fortnight, which ended last week, was cited by Wright as another example.
Herself a fair trade consumer, Wright admits the findings pose a dilemma.
"If these tactics work, and they seem to, then I don't want to criticise them because poor producers need fair trade," she said. "But I find some of the advertising problematic from an academic point of view as it may be inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes about the majority world, for instance that western consumerism can redeem it."
CAFOD, Christian Aid and Oxfam helped establish the Fairtrade Foundation in 1991 to sell goods bought from disadvantaged producers at a fair price.
The foundation, whose logo appears on products that meet the fair trade criterion, estimates the fair trade market had a retail value of £62.2 million in 2002, £46 million in 2001 and £33 million in 2000.
Perhaps the most successful product is Cafedirect, which was launched in 1991 and is now the UK's sixth largest coffee brand. But for many, mainstream acceptance has proved difficult, hence the appeal to self-interest.
Terry Hudghton, head of brands at the Co-Op, which pioneered own-brand fair trade goods, said: "We're desperately trying to make fair trade mainstream.
People have bought into the ethics, now they need convincing of quality.
"The first message is about quality and taste and the second message is about ethics. Ethics becomes the tie-breaker."