Today marks the start of Fairtrade fortnight, when ethical trading will top the agenda, but what exactly is this - and who does it help? Women's Editor Sarah Foster asks Cristina Talens, a woman at the coal face.

IT was as a student in Leeds that Cristina Talens began to think of ethical trading. The 32-year-old, who comes from Spain, was learning international business and something didn't quite fit. "I remember at the time feeling that I wasn't comfortable about applying my knowledge," she says. "It felt almost like human beings weren't important in business. I remember that we were taught to take advantage of new conditions and new countries but at no point was it ever really covered that there was a social dimension to business."

Speaking at her Harrogate base - the headquarters of caf and coffee chain Bettys and Taylors - Cristina is clearly a people person. Her broad smile and laid-back manner seem far removed from the steely stereotype of those in business. Yet despite this appearance - and her youth - she holds a key position within the firm. Her wordy title - group ethical coordinator and social auditor - basically means she's a guarantor, ensuring fair play with Third World suppliers.

"I'm here to make sure that the commercial meets the ethical, so I marry both approaches," she explains. "That means making sure that the way we work with the producers who make our tea and coffee is ethical, that people are being treated well and being paid a good price and that we respect long-term relationships. We've had relationships with a lot of the people we work with for a number of years."

While she clearly loves her job, believing passionately in what she does, for many years, Cristina turned her back on business. After university, she followed her heart into humanitarian work, becoming a volunteer for Anti Slavery International. Eventually, this led to paid employment - and a foreign posting.

"I went to work in Paris with a partner organisation working with migrants," she says. "I was always very interested in the migrant labour issue, perhaps because of my parents moving from one country to another. When I went to work in France I was working with migrants who were kept in abominable conditions. It was a question of getting them out and prosecuting employers."

What Cristina saw - including women who were domestic slaves and never ventured from their homes - really opened her eyes. As human trafficking came to public consciousness, she found herself travelling to West Africa, where many of the migrants came from. "I went to try to talk to the local NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations)," she says. "I was trying to sensitize communities."

It was during this time that Cristina first encountered the coffee trade - and realised it was part of the abuse. "What was going on at the time, and what's still going on, was that children were being sent to other countries to work on cocoa plantations," she says. "I was employed by the UN to work specifically on this issue."

Yet much as she saw the value of her role, Cristina was frustrated by its limitations. She began to think humanitarian work was not enough. "After years and years doing it one of the things you begin to realise is that there's a limit to NGO actions," she says. "They're the organisations that can bring a problem to the foreground but I thought if there were jobs for these people at home, if people were paid correctly, if the right conditions were there, they wouldn't need to go away or send their children away, so I came back to what I had done ten years previously - international business."

As luck would have it, just as Cristina was poised for a change, the job came up at Bettys and Taylors. She already knew the company well. "My mum works as a waitress at Bettys in Harrogate and I'd also worked there as a waitress during the holidays," she says. "They'd been doing ethical work already and wanted to formalise the role. My mum saw the advert and said it sounded just like me."

Since joining the family firm, two-and-a-half years ago, Cristina has made her mark, cementing links with its suppliers. As a social auditor, she's also bound to keep them in line. "Basically, I visit the farms and measure the conditions against national and international legislation," she says.

'I interview people on a completely confidential basis. Where I discover problems, I'll sit down with the farmer and develop a plan of action. I visit every year to see what improvements are being made."

While you might expect a delegation, in fact Cristina travels alone - which she says doesn't faze her. I wonder what African villagers make of her - especially when she's giving orders - but she says she's always made welcome.

"People are surprised and in awe, because they might not have seen a European woman before," she says. "I usually get a few giggles from the children, but people are very respectful. Generally speaking, humour really helps, because I'm from such a different world. The moment comes when I say, 'have you got any questions'? and they just bombard me with them."

Yet while she enjoys these visits, there have been hairy moments - such as when she ended up in a field of snakes. "I said to some farmers, 'I must go down to the field alone to talk to the workers'," says Cristina. "They waved me off and I was auditing in a field of snakes with a pair of sandals on."

Largely thanks to Cristina's hard work, five of Bettys and Taylors products can be branded Fairtrade. As she is keen to point out, all their trading is done ethically - it's just that the definition is very narrow. "Basically, the Fairtrade Foundation will only accredit marginalised smallholders - for example, those who have around one acre of land," she says. "Eighty per cent of the world's coffee is produced by smallholders, so the Fairtrade mark is a discriminatory mechanism to try to protect them."

So why doesn't she just deal with these farmers? Cristina reminds me of the firm's commitment to long-term trading. Some of its oldest contacts are larger scale producers - and these need protection too. "The larger farms have suffered - there was a big coffee crisis, when Fairtrade really took off," she says. "We also have medium-sized farms and estates that were going to be abandoned. There was a farmer whose coffee was voted one of the best in Guatemala and had it not been for us stepping in, he would have just left it."

With its frequent travelling, Cristina's job is by no means easy - especially as she's a single mum. Luckily, while she's jetting off, there's help on hand to care for five-year-old Elisa. "I call my mother a fairy grandmother," she says, laughing. "I've had to go to Kenya every month for the last few months at quite short notice, but I've been able to work it every time. I've got my support system."

So what does she like most about her role? Cristina replies without hesitation. "The best thing is going back a year later to see what improvements have been made," she says. It might be a new building, improved sleeping conditions, a new classroom for the kids or a teacher who's come in. When you first go there, people don't know any different - things have been the same in farming communities for hundreds of years - but afterwards, they certainly know why the improvements are in their interests."

And it's not just bleeding heart liberalism, either. Sounding every inch the businesswoman, Cristina says: "At the end of the day, our ethical policy means that we get the best coffee. The sooner all business comes to understand that, the better things will be."