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Does It Matter How “Informed” Shoppers Are?

Leslie Back | Friday May 28th, 2010 | 1 Comment

By Leslie Back

I love being a student, especially this time around. I am seven weeks into my Sustainable MBA and I am delighted by what I am working on. Well, let me qualify that. I like most of what I am working on. In truth, my statistics book cures insomnia, but the class has been great (and only one more week to go!). In my online MBA program we are taught the basics: communication, accounting, finance, economics and so on, and use those foundations to further all the “green” and socially responsible concepts that relate to the Triple Bottom Line.

That is how I found myself, this past week, completing a research project on the willingness of the “average” shopper in Tampa, Florida, to buy organic food and to pay more for it. Nationwide, organic food purchases are on the rise, and for the sake of research (and my grade) I theorized that similar trends would be found in my local and wholly unscientific study. I was not disappointed.

Organics have grown at a steady rate of twenty percent per year for the last several years nationwide Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. As of 2010, organic food represented 3.7% of all food sales. California has traditionally led the way in organic purchases with 38% of all purchases in 2008 Agricultural Marketing Research Center. But, my little informal study revealed that Tampa shoppers are just as interested in organic products as their West Coast friends. Overall, 62.5% of respondents said they were willing to pay more for organic food. The majority, or 75%, reported they were willing to pay between 5-15% more for organic food.

The best part of this project was not the answers provided, but the new questions posed; questions that demand further research and inquiry (capstone project perhaps?). Although not directly related to the hypothesis at hand, I added two questions towards of the end of the survey to satisfy my own curiosity. Respondents were asked what the abbreviation “GMO” represented and what, if anything, it had to do with organics. I also asked who or what regulated and certified organic food.

I was not surprised by the results. Although most of respondents admitted to a willingness to pay more for organics, they had no idea who regulated the products, or what GMO (genetically modified organisms) products are. One respondent thought maybe the FDA regulated the process while another responded “no clue.” I love honesty.

This gives me pause (a short one as I have more stats to read). Consumers are increasingly willing to buy organics, but why do they do so? Do they truly understand the regulations around organics? If my little study has any merit (no argument from this corner either way) then organic shoppers do not necessarily know what organic really means.

And that is okay. It is funny how the mind can change in the course of one or two pages. When I started this little post I had the intention to argue that consumers should be more informed about their organic food choices and the regulations and processes behind them. I was ready to take a stand for increased education on organic certifications, GMOs, US versus European standards, and so on.

But, I have changed my mind. You do not need to know the number of carcinogens or nicotine levels in cigarettes to know you are better off not buying them. Perhaps consumers are just following the trends, or maybe they are just following fear (pesticide washed apple anyone?). Or maybe they are listening to that small intuitive part of themselves that knows better and wants to do their part to help clean up our large, collective environmental mess.

The reasons do not matter. Two cheers for the organic shopper who is doing it because it is “cool” or their best friend’s mom’s pastor told them to. Let’s hear it for being trendy and hip because if green is “in” we all benefit. And, for the concerned shopper, the one who is ready to take it to the next level, the information is out there and they can read for days. But, let’s not browbeat those who drive Hummers, yet still buy organic food and all natural cleaners. Let’s celebrate the victories, applaud their efforts and take it one little, green/blue step at a time.


Leslie Back is a first-year Sustainable MBA student at Green Mountain College. Study interests include environmental conservation, social responsibility and the power of corporate and non-profit partnerships to bring about positive change. Other areas of interest include social media in sustainable marketing and public policy. She holds an MA in Organizational Management and a BS in Leisure Management. On the rare occasions when she is not studying, she enjoys writing, reading, running, nature walks and yoga. She hopes to use her skills, talents and education to make a positive impact with an environmentally and socially conscious organization.

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