Despite the recession people are sticking to their values and buying Fairtrade, says Mike Coupe

Last month, while sitting on a stage in front of 300 people, I was rather taken aback when asked whether or not I was wearing Fairtrade underwear.

The question came from a member of the audience at our annual Fairtrade conference, held at our offices in Holborn. Under the intense glare of all those customers, stakeholders, journalists and colleagues, the questions came thick and fast.

It’s the same every time we hold Fairtrade events. We are constantly tested and interrogated, because even when you work at a company like Sainsbury’s, which as the world’s largest Fairtrade retailer has done so much for the Fairtrade movement, people always think, quite rightly, that you should be doing more.

We are doing our utmost to meet this expectation. I, sadly, may not have been wearing Fairtrade underwear that day, but we had recently signed a new agreement to purchase all of our Fairtrade cotton from a co-operative in Gujarat, guaranteeing the growers there a route to market and pre-paying the fair trade premiums, so they can immediately set about making improvements within their community.

Projects like this are important because fair trade is a subject close to our customers’ hearts. When the recession struck and disposable incomes began to shrink, many predicted a fall in Fairtrade sales as people, in the search for value, would begin to neglect their values and opt for cheaper alternatives.

Yet this gloomy prediction never came to pass. Fairtrade sales are booming. They have risen by 27% in our stores over the past year, to £276m.

As the world’s largest Fairtrade retailer, we know a thing or two about what drives our customers to choose ethically sourced products. Firstly, recognition of the fair trade mark is high. The Fairtrade Foundation has done a fantastic job of communicating the work it does and as a result, customers have forged an emotional connection with Fairtrade that they are unwilling to give up.

Secondly, Fairtrade products are not necessarily more expensive. We were the first large supermarket to switch our bananas to 100% Fairtrade in 2007 and since then, our bananas have remained competitively priced. We as a business decided that the extra cost of sourcing fair trade bananas should be carried by us rather than our customers because they expect us to source ethically without charging high prices.

For Fairtrade Fortnight 2011, we have launched a campaign to get customers to eat a million more Fairtrade bananas than they did during Fairtrade Fortnight 2010, as we strive to raise awareness of the advantages to buying fair trade.

We’re aiming to sell a record 26 million bananas over the course of the fortnight.

Despite this sort of campaigning and the other work we will undoubtedly do over the next 11 months, I fully expect next year’s Fairtrade conference to be equally challenging. I will certainly make sure that I am fully equipped with a long list of our achievements, in addition to some newly purchased fair trade underwear.

Mike Coupe is group commercial director at Sainsbury’s