What the customer wants

Websites and barcodes trace the link between producers and consumers

Dorothea Kleine

The Fair Tracing project used the web and barcode technology to link coffee and wine producer associations in India and Chile with their customers in Europe.

For farmers who want to expand their business and look for new market opportunities it is useful to find out what customers expect from their product, and then adapt their production processes to meet those demands. It can be difficult, however, for producers to gather such specific details especially if they export their goods, as the consumers live far away.

Researchers from four UK universities (Universities of Bradford, Royal Holloway, Sheffield Hallam, and the Oxford Internet Institute) worked with coffee and wine producers in India and Chile, respectively, to help them target their production and marketing to European customers who want to buy fair trade products. The producers wanted to know what kind of information customers looked for when buying coffee or wine. Were they concerned mostly with the price? Or was quality more important? Were they interested in where the product came from? Or did they want to know about the production processes? How concerned were they about environmental and social aspects of production?

After initial participatory research with the producers, the Fair Tracing team conducted consumer research, accompanying customers as they visited supermarkets to discover what they looked for when they bought fair trade coffee or wine. Their results showed that while people were concerned with quality and cost, they wanted to know more about the farmers growing the beans and grapes, and how they benefitted from extra benefits such as the social premium built into the price of fair trade products.

‘The basic idea behind the project was to give consumers and producers a better idea of the value chains in which they operate,’ says Dr Dorothea Kleine of Royal Holloway, University of London, the project manager and one of the researchers working on Fair Tracing.

The first task for the project team was to research the entire supply chain of the products, and make the information available to producers and consumers by publishing the details on the internet. The team worked with the producers to develop short photo stories explaining the production processes to consumers, which were also added to the website. With the farmers in Chile, they made a series of videos about the main Chilean wine grape, carménère; one showing how they used the fair trade social premium in the community, and another on how to taste and appreciate wine to try to give consumers a range of information about their particular product.

Smart choice

‘We had to develop an interface that would be easy for consumers to use, and which could also be available on cell phones,’ says Kleine. The project developed sites to show how the system would work. From the internet, people type in the product’s barcode number and then view, on Google Maps, all the places where the product has travelled. The web page could also provide information on the product’s fair trade or organic certification, rating on ethical rating schemes, plus links to photos and videos.

Using a smartphone with a barcode reader application installed, the phone’s camera can scan the code and automatically direct the consumer to the online site. The idea being that customers could check the product in the supermarket to make an informed decision about what they buy.

‘It gives the farmers the chance to explain more about their product to consumers,’ says Kleine. ‘The producers we met had enormous pride in their work and were keen to express how much effort, expertise and care went into producing their product. Some of these products have great traditions and really wonderful stories. And maybe that additional information can help the consumer to choose their bottle of wine or packet of coffee from the whole array before them in the supermarket.’

For the farmers, being able to communicate with customers, even if it is only online, is a good first step in starting to build a brand, support brand recognition and help consumers develop a sense of relationship with the product. The farmers also get a good idea of their typical customer and what that person would want to associate with a brand or see on the label of a wine bottle that would encourage them to buy it.

The technology gives farmers the chance to present themselves too, says Kleine. ‘The fair trade producers want to be recognised as professionals, not as aid beneficiaries. But in order to do their job professionally, there is a certain amount of information that they need. And this kind of communication system can go a long way to help producers build a relationship with their consumers – a relationship that is about fair forms of trade, not about aid.’

Although the project officially ended in 2009, the team has maintained a blog that has put all results in the public domain and helped them promote their work and connect with other people involved in similar initiatives or who are interested in using the technology. This has resulted in a conference and a series of online meetings with related projects, many of them not-for-profits, discussing how Fair Tracing and similar projects could be further developed. One idea being considered to make the system commercially viable, would be to work with the UK’s Ethical Consumer magazine’s subscription-based ‘ethiscore’ ranking service. Customers could then use the app while in the supermarket to find out more about the people producing the products they buy.


Dorothea Kleine is director of the MSc Practising Sustainable Development, and lecturer, at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is a member of the UNESCO Chair/Centre for ICT and Development and the Centre for Research into Sustainability.

Other members of the Fair Tracing team included Dr Apurba Kundu, Ashima Chopra (University of Bradford), Dr Ann Light (Sheffield Hallam University), Dr Ian Brown, Christian Wallenta (Oxford Internet Institute), Helen LeVoi and Maria-José Montero (Royal Holloway, University of London).


Fair Tracing
The blog gives more information on the farmers associations involved in the project, and offers a demonstration of how the system would work.

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
EPSRC is the main UK government agency for funding research and training in engineering and the physical sciences, investing more than £850 million a year in a broad range of subjects – from mathematics to materials science, and from information technology to structural engineering.

26 August 2011

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