Ads for Sainsbury's own-brand tea range have been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) after a group of Labour MPs complained that the grocer had misled customers by suggesting that its products were certified by the global Fairtrade scheme.
The watchdog judged ads and packaging designs for Sainsbury’s ‘Fairly Traded’ range to be too similar to the those used by the independent Fairtrade scheme, which awards a certification to suppliers and retailers which stock ethically sourced goods.
The ASA said that the supermarket must not use the ads in their current form, and has told Sainsbury’s to ensure that future packaging is not designed in a misleading way.
The issue came to light after Labour MPs Stella Creasy, Holly Lynch, Stephen Timms and Stephen Doughty complained to the ASA. They said that the ad in question, which promoted the grocer’s 'Fairly Traded Red Label' tea bags on its website, was misleading as to the ethical standards that applied to the products.
The tea bags were available for sale on same web page as genuinely certified Fairtrade products, and displayed 'Fairly Traded' logos on the product packaging.
The company has sold its own-brand tea under the Fairly Traded range since June 2017, when it withdrew its tea range from the Fairtrade scheme.
Sainsbury’s response to the complaint asserted that the logo design for the range had been designed to be distinct from the Fairtrade mark, and that the range reflected the high ethical standards it employed when choosing suppliers.
A statement from the grocer defended its record on ethical tea sourcing, saying that the firm was “committed to establishing long-term, open and fair relationships with their suppliers, ensuring they had the skills and capacity to manage their workers responsibly.”
Despite Sainsbury’s defence the ASA ruled that the ad, and the packaging, was misleading. A statement from the watchdog said that "The ad did not make sufficiently clear that ‘Fairly Traded’ related to a separate scheme run by Sainsbury’s," especially given that the Fairtrade brand and scheme was the best known fair trade organization in the market among consumers.
However, the ASA rejected the MPs’ allegation that the grocer had inflated its reputation for ethical sourcing, noting that the Fairly Traded range did include measures to ensure the products were part of an ethical supply chain.
Discussing the ruling, Creasy told The Drum: “When Sainsburys came to explain to us why it was abandoning Fairtrade tea, we warned that it wasn’t fair to consumers who trust these ethical standards to try to sell them tea under a similar name, so we’re pleased to see the ASA take action following our complaint.
“This ruling should be a wake-up call for Sainsbury’s that backing out of the Fairtrade movement and pretending its Fairly Traded tea is the same won’t wash – the ASA agree how Sainsbury's present its products will confuse consumers. Put simply, its ‘fauxtrade’ tea is not the same thing and consumers deserve the right to know."
Creasy said she hoped the ruling would encourage Sainsbury's to restore its relationship with the Fairtrade organisation. "We hope this will encourage Sainsbury's to reverse its decision to stop working with the Fairtrade Foundation and get back round a table to renegotiate – on behalf of our constituents we will certainly continue challenging them to be part of this important scheme which helps food producers around the world."