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Retailers rethink use of fair trade cotton

Major retailers are changing their strategy on fair trade cotton after sales of the ethical fibre slumped by more than 25% in 2009.

Tesco and Marks & Spencer are placing less emphasis on basic T-shirts using fair trade cotton and more on design-led pieces including denim and knitwear.

Sales of fair trade cotton slumped last year after two years of strong growth as retailers and shoppers focused on low-price clothing rather than ethical considerations. Sales are expected to remain flat in 2010.

Two years ago, M&S estimated it would use a third of the world’s supply of fair trade cotton to make 20 million garments by 2008, while Tesco aimed to sell between 15 million and 20 million garments using the fibre and Sainsbury’s aimed to sell 3 million.

One fashion insider said: “What many on the high street have done is incorporated fair trade cotton into commodity garments and, as times have got tougher, price has become more important to that type of product, and consumers make a decision based on price.”

Tesco has already changed its strategy on fair trade cotton after finding that sales of basic T-shirts suffered at the beginning of this year.

The grocer has broadened its range to include more fashion T-shirts, men’s polo shirts, school uniforms and sweaters.

Tesco technical director for fashion Alan Wragg said the grocer was now confident of maintaining the amount of cotton it buys from fair trade farmers.

M&S insisted that sales of its fair trade clothing had met expectations in 2009, remaining at about the same level as in 2008 at 8 million garments but short of its original aim to sell 20 million garments by the end of 2008 - a target now shifted to 2012.

M&S said it was focusing on extending its range of fair trade products to include women’s jeans and new designs of T-shirts at different price points.

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