For me, some of the most interesting marketing news this year has been the declaration of war between the big retailers for the organic food market, both in the States and the U.K. AdAge kicked off the campaign in mid July with an article about Wal Mart’s multimillion-dollar campaign “focused on its new organic food offerings,” their “first ever” organic logo and the advertising tagline “What will you bring to the table?” According to Janel LaMonica, VP-creative director at Bernstein-Rein, there have always been two things holding back the growth of the organic food market: one, the difficulty in finding organic products, the other, the difficulty of affording them. She makes the claim that “Wal-Mart has taken down both these barriers.”
In early August, the British on-line Independent weighed in with the news that the J Sainsbury and Waitrose chains were planning to duke it out for the increasing lucrative UK organic market share (up 30% from this time last year). Sainsbury is also gearing up to compete with rival chain Tesco. Both chains are offering organic “box schemes”, a weekly standing order of fresh, seasonal organic fruits and vegetables, hoping that the option to order on-line will give them a competitive edge over the smaller chain Abel & Cole and independent farmers and co-operatives that pioneered the idea. Asda, owned by Wal Mart, is also a player in the new mass-market push toward organic food. Both Sainsbury and Tesco are making a great effort to buy from local suppliers. According to another Independent article, Sainsbury achieved its target of sourcing 70 per cent of its organic produce from domestic suppliers one year ahead of a British Government deadline.
One worrying aspect of corporate interest in organic products is its emphasis on competitive pricing over ethics. Another is that the current situation, in which demand is outpacing supply, endangers the concept of local sourcing, which has always been a touchstone of the British organic movement. At present, 82 percent of British organic staples—apples, root vegetables, pork, beef, chicken and lamb, were sourced locally in five of the eight top supermarkets. However, only 4 percent of farming in the UK is currently organic, although applications to the Soil Association, Britain’s organic certification body, have more than doubled in the past year. A powerful argument in favor of organic farming in the UK has been its capacity to generate jobs in depressed rural areas. The Soil Association has asserted that if the nation were to convert all of its farms to organic, it would create an additional 93,000 farm jobs. In the meantime, however, the shortfall of local suppliers could make cheaper foreign producers more attractive to large chains determined to rapidly dominate market share with competitive pricing. Affordable organic food is a highly desirable concept. I would love to buy 100% organic but my budget doesn’t permit it. However, what if my affordable organic groceries meant that my local organic farmer had to compete with cheaper foreign labor or accept a price that could drive him out of business? He’s barely making it now. What would he have left to bring to his own table?
The Natural Foods Merchandiser reports that the American customer for natural and organic products seeks the lowest price and spends his money in “big box” stores, which could be the trend in Britain too, if it weren’t for other considerations high on the list of British consumers. Widespread interest in organic food was sparked by the “Mad Cow” crisis, but sales of organic products have continued to grow exponentially in the U.K. even though the crisis of confidence in British beef has passed. According to a recent article in the NFM website, “Now that food scares are no longer the driving force behind U.K. consumers buying organic, another factor has emerged. A 2005 Soil Association poll of 4,000 people found that consumers are motivated by supporting the environment, animal welfare and local economies.” A 2005 consumer study carried out by Harris International for Seeds of Change Ltd., confirmed the Soil Association survey, reporting that “42 percent of U.K. shoppers are buying organic for environmental reasons.” The big British supermarket chains may find that customers´ priorities are more complex than personal wellbeing or the price they pay at the checkout counter. Although supermarkets maintain the lion’s share of organic product sales, their market share has decreased for the third year in a row while independent retailers’ share has increased by 43 percent.
The dual interest that Brits express in both the big-picture sociological issues and the personal health benefits related to sustainable industry and organic gardening is due to a fortuitous convergence of grass roots, government and media initiatives. From media coverage of climate change to celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s calls for truly healthy school lunches, the ever-present and active sustainability debate is creating massive support for the implementation of rapid and profound changes in fundamental structures that could be a harbinger of changes in the patterns of world trade and distribution. On one hand, Brits in significant numbers have opted to spend more for items like fair trade coffees and teas. On the other hand, purchasing agents like Planet Organic food chain buyer Al Overton takes “food miles” into consideration when planning his stores´ inventories. Issues such as “Should we be selling water from the United States or pasta sauce from Australia?” are an important part of his company’s strategy for sustainability. If a large enough public agrees with him, local sourcing could even be a mechanism for lowering Britain’s foreign trade deficit.
As I stand in the grocery store eyeing raspberries from Chile, kiwis from New Zealand and hothouse tomatoes from Holland – all distinctly lacking in flavor and few of them organic- it sets me thinking. The historically much maligned, locally-sourcing British culinary community may well be the next gastronomic vanguard.