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Charles 28 Comments

 Here’s an interesting claim from The Co-operative Group

“The Co-operative has a long tradition of leading the way on fair trade and the launch of the first-ever Traidcraft endorsed fairly traded coffin range at our funeral homes is a natural, if unusual, progression.” 

This first-ever status is endorsed by Traidcraft:

Larry Bush, Marketing Director, Traidcraft, said: “We are delighted to be working in partnership with The Co-operative in a brand new area of fair trade.  We have a strong track record of working together with the Co-operative Group to launch fair trade firsts.’ 

The Co-op must have put out a press release about this (we can’t find it) because the story is everywhere. We pasted a sentence from the article into Google and it threw up 213 results, all of them, pretty much, newspapers. That’s a fantastic strike rate for a press release, a coup for the Co-op – and an insight into the quality of what we are urged to believe is bona fide news, not propaganda served up as news. 

The Daily Telegraph version of the ‘story’ further tells us that: 

‘Green funerals, where clients choose materials from sustainable sources and carbon emissions from the day are kept at a minimum, have grown by 20 per cent in recent years and are now worth more than £8 million.’   

Goodness only knows where they sourced those figures. The article goes on to tell us that:

The bamboo and willow coffins are made in Bangladesh, where communities are given a fair price and money goes toward schools and health care.

Although wooden coffins approved as “rainforest friendly” have been fashionable for some time, these are the first coffins to be designated “fair trade” by official certifiers.

Traidcraft, a charity that promotes Fairtrade around the globe, said the coffins are the first to bring in money and fair working practices to a community in the developing world.

An early version of the story states that these coffins are being sold by the Co-operative Group ‘as part of its ethical strategy’. A more relevant and pressing ethical strategy, we’d suggest, would be a rededication to foundational values and the provision of affordable funerals to the poor and the disadvantaged. 

Because we’ve been very busy here at the GFG Batesville-Shard we never got around to finding out what William Wainman at Ecoffins thinks about all this. After all, he has been selling fairtrade coffins for as long as anyone can remember. We assumed he might be cross. So we very grateful to those of you who sent in his riposte:

Ecoffins started manufacturing bamboo coffins in 1999 and is the only World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) manufacturer of coffins in the world. We were accredited as a member of the WFTO in 2007 following two rigorous independent assessments of our factory in China. This allows us to use the WFTO logo, providing a guarantee that we are Fair Trade suppliers. Additionally, all the companies which we buy products from outside the EU are also fully accredited members of the WFTO. 

This is absolutely not the case with those coffins Co-operative Funeralcare will now be selling. Their manufacturers are not WFTO accredited and therefore will not be able to claim Fair Trade status for their bamboo or willow coffins. They should also not make claims that imply that they are the first to do this in the UK. 

Copies of the WFTO assessors’ report on our own factory can be viewed at 

Are we to suppose that Co-op Funeralcare was ignorant of the Ecoffins accreditation? Or that they simply didn’t let it get in the way of a good story? 

As for those who credulously published the story, shame on your fact-checking. 

Hat-tip to MJ, DB and JU


  1. Charles

    As usual, the firm is trading on the very ignorance it encourages by its ‘we’ll take away all the worry and stress for you’ advertizing angle, and attracting business from vulnerable bereaved people who may shun it if they were properly informed. That it apparently uses misinformation to attain this goal is unethical, and it shows itself up as anything but a fair trade organization.

  2. Charles

    I was once invited on a press trip to the Caribbean island of St Lucia to write a mag feature about fair trade bananas being sold at Sainsburys. When not basking by the resort pool, I attended a Q&A with the supermarket chain where a simple farmer stood up and asked if they’d consider stocking his sideline in goat meat, too. A Sainsburys suit had to politely explain they only bought in bulk.

    It’s a godsend for poor communities that big corporations give them volume business coupled with non-exploitative trading practicies. It’s also natural the companies will milk their mutually-beneficial patronage for marketing purposes (jet journos to an idyllic far-off island to remind them the brand is caring and ethical etc).

    PRs can exaggerate their employer’s pioneering philanthropy and journalists should be viligant to this. But a dual motive (both self-serving and philanthropic) doesn’t make something bad.

    The Co-op shouldn’t have claimed to be the first but their Traidcraft supplier is indeed certified. There are various accreditations, the WFTO is not the only one.

    PS I still think whicker coffins look like Fortnum’s picnic hampers.

  3. Charles

    Richard, Ecoffins are famous in Funeralworld. It’s a bit like you claiming to have invented gravity.

    Philanthropy begins at home. Funeralcare’s funerals are far too expensive, way beyond the reach of the disadvantaged people the Rochdale Pioneers dedicated themselves to serving. First things first.

    I, for one, cannot feel charitably – and that’s not economic naivete speaking.

    1. Charles

      Charles, economic naivete was genuinely the last thing on my mind. I agree Funeralcare has several flaws, but flogging fair trade coffins isn’t one of them – except for the fact they made out they were the first to do so. I applaud you for kicking them to touch for that. The price they charge is a separate matter.

      1. Charles

        Richard, your naivete may not be economic but it’s staggering all the same. Because a big firm uses a ‘fairtrade’ system isn’t to say it’s even remotely fair – a fair trade cotton clothes shop local to me, supporting villagers in India, is going bust at the cost of those people’s jobs because Sainsbury’s has bought up all the ‘fair trade’ cotton, a poor crop this year, at a cheap price to put in its own shops.

        Fair trade? No better than fur trade.

        1. Charles

          Jonathan, I disagree it’s about my naivete. I never said a corporation that buys fair trade goods is an ethical trader all the time. I’m sceptical about much so-called fair trade as a marketing ploy to impress Western consumers.

  4. Charles

    PPS There’s sometimes conflict between fair trade goods and eco goods. Fair trade supports developing countries by shipping their produce across the world. Eco goods are often locally sourced among other low carbon footprint attributes.

  5. Charles

    All I challenged was Ecoffins insinuating Co-op coffins couldn’t claim legitimate fair trade status because they’re not WFTO. They’re too canny for that. I believe the Co-op’s Traidcraft supplier uses Fairtrade accreditation, ‘Fairtrade (Foundation)’ being a recognised association which awards the use of a trademark as opposed to ‘fair trade’ merely being words of description. Sainsburys bananas use the Fairtrade logo rather than the WFTO logo.

  6. Charles

    There is a lot to regret in the cooperative funeralcare story – the hyperbole of the claims to be the first Fairtrade coffins: Ecoffins prior accreditation makes that a nonsense*; the ‘churnalism’ that means the press release is simply passed on as news rather than ‘advertorial’; the reach and power of the co-op that ensures wide publicity.

    But Richard’s right – they are offering faritrade coffins, and that’s mostly a good thing for the communities that produce them – so is it two cheers? Or just the one?

    By the way, I bet there are other fair-trade coffins out there too – anyone know if there are?
    * It’s worth saying before Andrew’s dark suspicions are given too much credence, the World Fair Trade Organisation and Ecoffins themselves do indicate that their acreditation is valid and does predate the Coop’s accreditation by a number of years.

  7. Charles

    The other issue of course is unstated but implied. If they are the first then by implication no-one else is, yet. So the only place in the UK you can get a ‘Fairtrade’ coffin is……
    And we all know that’s not true.

  8. Charles

    Are not the two organisations, Ecoffins and Funeralcare stating different things?

    It is the Traidcraft charity who say this is the first coffin they have been involved with and surely they should know whether it is, that quote has then been used by Funeralcare, maybe it is open to misinterpretation but it is a statement of fact. Ecoffins on the other hand are saying they were the first and only WFTO coffin supplier, something that I cannot see that Funeralcare is stating for themselves or disagreeing with.

    It seems that even when Funeralcare do something positive it results in critical posts. Are we saying that it would be better if they were not involved with a charity? Or is it that they have tread on some one else’s USP and Ecoffins should have a monopoly?

    1. Charles

      I couldn’t agree more James.

      It just saddens me so much that the GFG has to criticise for the sake of criticising.

      Where once I supported, enthused about and shouted the merits of the GFG, I now find myself thinking very much otherwise.

      So very, very sad.

    2. Charles

      “It seems that even when Funeralcare do something positive it results in critical posts. Are we saying that it would be better if they were not involved with a charity?”

      Well, yes, as a matter of fact James, I believe it would be better not to force disadvantaged workers into dependency on a cynical outfit such as I personally believe Funeralcare to be. It’s not criticism for the sake of it, as you suggest Andrew – though it could be argued that it’s better than their having no way at all to earn a living, you could equally say that about a myriad employees who are effectiveyly enlsaved by the capitalist system in whose vocabulary ‘fair’ has its own idiosyncratic meaning.

      The bottom line, for me as a celebrant, is watching helplessly as the Tesco of bereavement support take unfair advantage of the trust that innocent people put in them to provide a vastly inferior service to that provided by the likes of you small, independent undertakers. They have lost my trust, and I cannot but be cynical about anything they do.

  9. Charles

    Admission: I am an Ecofiins buyer – very good coffins and service.

    To my cynical eyes – this press release seems to seek to reinforce the eco – fair trade credentials of the Funeralcare business generally? I’m sure it would like the great unwashed to believe ‘fair-trade’ and green-ness applies to all of their business activities.

    As Charles points out – when they credit check and charge clients high prices, the fair is a debatable point?

  10. Charles

    David, it’s dangerous to read in things (cynically or otherwise) as you effectively end up saying that, because you don’t see the Co-op as fair, you therefore critcise them for buying fairly trade coffins. You might be right that Co-op cynically publicises the fact they buy fair trade coffins in order to win some brownie points. But you confuse the issue by criticising the Co-op for using a fair trade supplier when your gripe is about them charging high prices. I prefer rigour and reason to woolly logic even if the overall conclusion is similar.

  11. Charles

    My fairly large local co-op food store, features huge posters on its walls proclaiming their fair trade credentials, support for local produce and boasts of support for local good causes.

    In fact in my village, the prices they charge for groceries are higher than the big supermarkets, often far higher. In addition, the checkouts are all full of basketsof cheap chocolate offers. I think the impression they work hard to create is not reflected in their actual business operations.

  12. Charles

    James, Co-operative Funeralcare claims to be ‘leading the way’. This is a statement which has the capacity to mislead people. It is, if you like, marketing legerdemain.

    The Co-operative Group holds itself to high principles, and by these it must be judged. There are many ways of interpreting this — many points of view. They are all worth debating. I would argue that the Group needs to get back to basics – to the spirit and intention of the Rochdale Pioneers – and I would argue that this would give it all the marketing edge it needs. Argue, note. My mind is not closed.

    I subscribe to the view of Edgar Parnell, which he outlined to me as follows:

    Perhaps the most important thing that I have learnt from working with co-ops & mutuals world-wide is that ordinary members are almost solely interested in the outcomes that their enterprise actually deliver. After all this will invariably be the reason why they became members in the first place. The outcomes that members want are by no means limited to getting a ‘better deal’. Typically, they also want an organization that can be trusted to do right by them, and that will continue to be around when they and their families need it. Sadly all too often, those empowered to run co-ops & mutuals lose sight of this most fundamental fact. Also, that it is their job to help to deliver those outcomes that members actually want.

    People everywhere now seem to be crying out for a better model of enterprise, one that they can really trust to deliver those outcomes that they really want. Unfortunately, they are being let down badly, not only by many commercial business but alas also by some co-ops & mutuals. The people running co-ops & mutuals frequently appear to become confused about the purpose of their enterprises and instead of focusing upon delivering the outcomes that members want they have their own agendas. Often they are well intentioned but fail to understand that no matter their cause, their co-op or mutual should not be used as platform for it. Others are more self-interested and place their personal interests ahead of those of the membership. In extreme cases securing the demutualisation of co-ops & mutuals; as has been the case with many building societies and agricultural co-operatives.

    Since their inception co-ops & mutuals have been the subject of rigorous study by both enthusiasts and academics, however, much of their efforts have been spent upon defining the characteristics and identity of various forms and types of co-ops and mutuals. The main concern appears to have been with the processes, rather than with the outcomes of co-operative and mutual endeavour. Meanwhile, there has only been very limited investigation of the ‘member-controlled enterprise model’, which underpins all co-ops & mutuals and which focuses upon the achievement of outcomes. Co-ops & mutuals need a well-defined and widely understood enterprise model, capable of providing essential guidance for all those involved in co-ops & mutuals, and which can properly inform day-to-day decision-making.

    You can find Edgar’s website here:

  13. Charles

    Goodness me, what a to-and-fro about a simple point; it seems the Co-op claimed to be first in the field when they weren’t. I can’t see why pointing that out should leave the GFG open to accusations of being critical for the sake of it.

    The GFG is doing what it’s long done – keeping an eye on the Co-op and telling us when it doesn’t like what it sees. I don’t see any argument from the GFG that Eco-coffins should have a monopoly, I can’t see why anyone should feel “very very sad” and turn against the GFG because it’s done usual helpful job.

    People are reading extraordinary things into this post.

    1. Charles

      Where would we be without toing and froing over simple points, GM? Stop being so unco-operative and have a good weekend. Clifton here I come.

  14. Charles

    GM, it’s quite ok to have differing opinions. If we all thought the same thing, the world would be a very boring place.

    Your opinion is clearly that the GFG can do no wrong, mine is that its views can be challenged. I’m far from ‘turning against’ it, just not willing to accept every single thing it says as being gospel. That’s fine isn’t it?

  15. Charles

    Absolutely fine, Andrew, except that I don’t believe the GFG can do no wrong, and have challenged it in the past eg views it expressed about humanist celebrants. And this from you: “Where once I supported, enthused about and shouted the merits of the GFG, I now find myself thinking very much otherwise” made me think you were turning against the GFG, and not just over disagreement on this post. That troubled me, because I think we both owe it a lot.

    Perhaps I can reassure both you and Richard that I am able to grasp the value of differing opinions – mine, which differs from Andrew’s, is that the GFG was not criticising for the sake of it, but making a perfectly valid point. I don’t follow any gospel in Funeralworld, but try, like most of us, to pick my way through the madnesses it seems to engender. And the GFG helps me do that, as do most or many of the comments it generates.

  16. Charles

    GM, I also agree with much GFG opinion and respect Charles, and indeed yourself, for being open to a ‘broad church’ of opinion.

    I’m not disagreeing that Funeralcare is in need of reform: C4’s Dispatches exposed unseemly treatment of the dead, and underhand selling to the bereaved.

    All I said was that Funeralcare’s Traidcraft coffins were indeed fair trade, although I accepted that any claim to be a national first was over-egged.

    In fact, I think the Co-op Group shoots itself in the foot in its obsessive marketing. It may succeed in getting its press releases published widely, but the more worldly journalists and readers, can see through too much hype.

    Here’s an example of how jaded I can be. When The Rochdale Pioneers was screened on Film4 last autumn, I initially thought, ‘cool, a sepia-tinted costume drama about the humble roots of the global co-operative movement’. Trailer here:

    However, when I saw it was commissioned by the Co-op Group and partly performed by the Co-op-branded British Youth Film Academy, I felt, rightly or wrongly, it smacked of cultish corporate control of the propaganda machine.

    My capacity to sneer gets worse. When I saw The Rochdale Pioneers was accompanied by a promotion video—showing the cast behind the scenes with an upbeat pop soundtrack—I concluded the Co-op’s spin doctors must have wanted to balance the flat caps and working class terraces of the film with a statement about its modernity. Here

    My cynicism continued when I went on the Co-op ethical plan web link, and tutted at its green policy’s support of wind turbines—useless energy generators that guzzle fossil fuel in their construction, kill millions of birds and bats and damage tourism as eco-eyesores. Here

    However, in moments of self-awareness, I try to check the balance of my judgments. None of us want to be unfairly harsh or naively gullible.

    The Co-op has always been good (sometimes too good) at keeping things in-house—comrades doing it for themselves. They’re proud of their history, work together, play together, do charity together and market themselves together!

    Back in the day, this had a sense of working class community spirit (almost Salvation Army-like). Now, the group is a mighty retail chain, it can smack of corporate cultism (almost Scientology-like)! The reality is neither extreme.

    But some good remains. It’s important to separate the wheat from the chaff. Just as with the Catholic Church, or Jimmy Savile at the BBC, it’s unfair when rotten apples make us believe the entire cart is bad.

    As an aside, my family originally hails from Lancashire, not far from Rochdale. And even up to my paternal grandfather, they owned textile mills there. I’m not sure if the Rochdale weavers would have approved of my forbears. Before capitalising on industrialisation, they ran slave trading vessels between Liverpool and the West Indies. The Rawlinsons are nicer and poorer these days. The Co-op is richer but is it nicer?

  17. Charles

    An enlightening post! The only bit of the Co-op I enjoy using these days is their Bank, which didn’t pay huge bonuses to international gamblers, and wasn’t involved in American subprime mortgage rotten dealing etc. So far as I’m concerned, some good bits, some bad bits; some good local Co-op FDs, as far as I can see, well rooted in their communities and apparently, careful in how they treat people.But the whole national organisation of FuneralCare – no thanks.

  18. Charles

    A question, GM: as a celebrant, do you ever wonder about the wisdom of critcising a major FD that might put work your way? Admirable if you don’t, of course. I myself try to be autonomous in my trade but end up being a sycophantic tart when absolutely necessary. I get the impression you’re not about packing in the numbers, someone who gets enough business by word of mouth perhaps. But does financial muscle ever win the day?

  19. Charles

    A good question, damn you young Rawlinson! First off, that’s not why I use an alias, it’s because on my blog I wrote quite a lot at first about local funerals, and wanted to preserve confidentiality. But it means no GFG readers in the mighty combines are likely to ignore me because I’ve been rude about them- they wouldn’t know who GM is. (I’m not too sure myself, sometimes.)

    My tarting comes at the individual FD level, and I console myself with the though that if I’m any good at all, I should get on and work with the family, so I’m polite, at least.

    Yes, I’ve had plenty of work just by talking to FDs, and recently I was getting (for me) too busy, so now I work alongside a friend and colleague.But I think where the filter comes in is in my personal dealings with FDs. They can probably see when I’m warm towards them, and when I’m just business-like, I hope.

    Problem is, turning down work from the Great Satan would simply mean He’d use someone else. Probably a retired minister of some kind. If I didn’t think I can do at least as good a job in a secular funeral as a retired minister, I’d quit, in any case.

    At the individual level, the Great Satanists round here seem OK to me, and I don’t know enough about how the wider machinations of His hellish realm interact with the FD in his little high street office, well-known in his community, or with families.

    Maybe when I’m ready to retire I should start a blog under my own name, rip into the big combines, (and the indies who aren’t especially good) and send the FDs I don’t like links to critical posts. I’m pretty sure the work would dry up, at least from those quarters. But there’s four or five of them I really love working with. Big people, careful people.

    But I don’t arrange the funeral, I don’t work in the office or the mortuary, so I just get tips ands hints from watching them on the day, and listening to how they talk about people. Like, I suspect, most celebrants if they’re honest, I don’t really know how good they are at the sharp end (bodies and families.)

    H’mm. Food for thought. Thanks.

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