What’s next for the world’s largest seller of Fairtrade wines?

We speak to Ed Robinson, the Co-op Group’s wine buyer, as it moves its South African range to 100% Fairtrade

Fairtrade wine is in high demand at the Co-op Group. Over the last couple of years the retailer has converted around a dozen of its wines to Fairtrade standards.

In 2020 the Group sold 15 million litres of Fairtrade wine – which makes it the world’s largest seller of Fairtrade wines. 

Two thirds of this comes from South Africa, with the remaining Fairtrade wine coming from Argentina, Chile and Lebanon. As of this month all of the South African wines on its shelves will be Fairtrade certified.

How did this all start? Ed Robinson, the Group’s wine buyer, says the push for Fairtrade wine began in 2001, a few years before he joined the organisation in 2008.

“Back in the day there were ethical standards for a lot of foodstuffs, but nothing for wine,” he says. “So we sourced wine through Traidcraft the first three years and then we were in discussion with Fairtrade. They were doing well with bananas, tea, coffee, sugar, cocoa, but again, there was nothing for wine so we worked with them to set a standard for wine and we sold the first Fairtrade wine in 2004.”

Related: What’s happening this Fairtrade Fortnight?

Since then the Group has continued to expand its Fairtrade wine offer, which now includes 57 wines, 45 of them from South Africa. On its website the Group lists a total of 380 wines, only 27 (7%) of which are Fairtrade.

Referring to sourcing 100% Fairtrade South African wine, Mr Robinson said:  “It’s a hugely exciting step, something they’ve been working on since 2018. It started with own label, but other established brands and producers have converted after seeing what we’re doing. 

“Seeing the engagement which Co-op shoppers are showing with Fairtrade lines they said ‘yes, we’ll come on board’. So it’s a really exciting step for us and we’re really proud that we can look at every single one of our range of more than 50 Fairtrade wines and say those adhere to Fairtrade standards.”

The cheapest wine in the Fairtrade range is £4.59, with the best selling one at £4.89 and the most expensive at over £10.

“We are very keen that this should be a Fairtrade offering for all budgets and quality requirements,” adds Mr Robinson. “One thing we’re absolutely adamant about is that whether it costs £4.85 or £14.85, the wine absolutely has to stand up in terms of quality and we’re very clear that they do.”

What difference does buying Fairtrade wine make? Mr Robinson says the Fairtrade premiums enable local producers, who are usually organised in a co-operative, to support their communities. The Group’s supplier in Argentina is La Riojana co-operative, the country’s first Fairtrade-accredited winery.

In 2005 following a field visit, the Group set out a long term plan to address the needs of the local community in the village of Tilimuqui, where many of the co-op’s vineyard workers live. The first step taken in 2007 was to renovate the old water supply to provide the community access to regular, clean water. To fund the project the Group matched the social premium received by La Riojana’s growers from Fairtrade. 

Another challenge was the lack of secondary schools in the area. Using premiums from the sale of Fairtrade wine and a donation from the Group, La Riojana was able to build the community’s first secondary school for children aged 13-18. More recently La Riojana has been working on building a medical care centre for over 10,000 people in the region, a project also backed by the Group.

Similarly, in South Africa Fairtrade wine producers have chosen to use the premiums they get to provide childcare and housing for vineyard workers.

“Two different countries, two very different sets of impact,” says Mr Robinson, “but when you are selling so much Fairtrade wine and sending so many hundreds of thousands of pounds back in terms of Premium of money, it does make a big difference. And when you apply that over many years it’s making long term differences to communities on a big scale.”

Unlike some other retailers who have developed their own certification schemes, the Group has chosen to continue to work with the Fairtrade Foundation.

“We evaluated this ourselves and the reason we stayed with Fairtrade is that in our opinion, they provide the most rigorous audits and have the most rigorous standards and they’re independent. I think independence is a really important thing. We could come up with our own certification standards but by having third party ones in place, we think the customer will have more confidence in that. Also the awareness of the Fair Trade Mark, and its standards is extremely high, it’s more than 90%. And so, again, the highest-level consumer confidence is attached to the Fairtrade standards. So for us, that was definitely the horse to back.”

Related: Fairtrade Cocoa Farmers in Côte d’Ivoire have increased their income by 85% in four years

Mr Robinson adds that many of the Group’s Fairtrade customers are very loyal and only buy Fairtrade wines. Is there anything they could buy to pair up with the wine?

“Fairtrade red wine especially goes so well with Fairtrade chocolate. Fairtrade Malbec goes so well with the Fairtrade dark chocolate. Flowers are another one, we use a lot of Fairtrade flowers, often wine is bought as a gift. Flowers are a great complement to that. 

“There’s a whole range of Fairtrade products in the Co-op stores. And it doesn’t just stop at those two but, chocolate, flowers, wine are a match made in heaven.”

Mr Robinson adds that the Co-op Fairtrade wine is not just a “token gesture” – it is also renowned for its quality. The Co-op Group was named the Convenience Store Chain of the Year at the International Wine Challenge Awards for the fourth year running, while its Co-op Irresistible Fairtrade Malbec won the Fairtrade Wine Trophy.

“We regularly win silver medals for a lot of these wines,” he says. “It’s important for people to understand that they are not just a token gesture – the wines are good, they sell well, and they’re appreciated by the critics as being good. 

“A good product lies at the heart of everything that we do. If the products weren’t good, then people wouldn’t buy them, money wouldn’t be generated, the project wouldn’t be helped and the whole cycle would fall apart. So the products we like to think of as very good. And there’s a broad range there. 

“Whatever your taste, whatever your budget, there’s a wine there for you. It’s important that they do afford that protection to the people who work in the vineyards and make them. So we’re very proud to reach this milestone and we’re looking forward to hopefully grow that even further this year.”

And the work does not end here. “This year we are putting in place ambitious new projects in housing and education and will be working closely with one of our Fairtrade trusts, who now own their vineyard,” says Mr Robinson. 

“With the extensive social benefits Fairtrade brings, together with the excellence of the wines involved, surely now is the time to ask why anyone would not want to choose Fairtrade wine when buying from South Africa.”