Organic Articles: Where Next For The Marketing of Organic and Fair Trade Food ??

Where Next For The Marketing of Organic and Fair Trade Food ??

Simon Wright
O&F Consulting

On February 19th Blackwell published The Handbook of Organic and Fair Trade Marketing, a book I have edited with my friend Diane McCrea. We started work on the book almost two years ago, but the book seems more relevant now than when we started. The aim of the book is to document the extraordinary success story that is organic and Fairtrade. As Sainsbury’s Group Chief Executive Justin King says in the Foreword “No other sectors within the UK food and drink industry are growing at the rates of organic and fair trade, and no other sectors are experiencing such fundamental shifts in customer buying patterns and attitudes. Organic and fair trade are leaving their niche status behind.” We illustrated just how this shift has been achieved by commissioning industry experts to write about their own experience, including case histories on Clipper, Yeo Valley, Green & Black’s, Abel & Cole, Duchy Originals and Sainsbury’s SO organic . For more information on the Handbook please visit

The Handbook also makes some suggestions as to what might happen next. In his chapter on global markets Amarjit Sahota points out that consumer demand for organic and fair trade products is currently concentrated in North America and Europe which together comprise about 97% of global revenues, the other 3% being generated mainly from Japan and Australia. Amarjit ascribes this imbalance to two factors: the prevalence of a substantial middle class and education about the benefits of buying organic and fair trade. As countries such as China and India continue to develop there is no reason why they should not become substantial consumers of the organic and fair trade products they currently export to North America and Europe.

The final chapter by John Bowes and David Croft considers the fascinating question of how organic and fair trade could crossover and converge. They see considerable challenges to both sectors as consumer awareness grows. With regard to corporate behaviour “consumers and the media will ultimately demand much more than token ethics. Their expectations will search out and demand a much more holistic commitment to corporate and social responsibility. The problem for both the Fairtrade Foundation and the Soil Association is that their current schemes cannot match that expectation. The nature and requirement of the current certification and monitoring procedures will limit the extension and growth of the potential for fair trade. The singular focus on the organic ‘gold standard’ will ensure that the Soil Association will remain an important, rather than a major, influence on UK agriculture”

No book that takes two years to produce can claim to be totally up-to-date, and the Handbook is no exception. The issue that the book underplays is the rapid rise of concerns about climate change amongst increasing numbers of citizens in the UK and elsewhere. The pace of change in these sectors hit home to me at the January Soil Association Cardiff conference, The day before the Conference proper the Soil Association Standards Board (of which I am a member) had met and discussed what to do about air freight. There have been mutterings for some time that the Soil Association should refuse to certify any organic food that travels by air. A preliminary briefing paper presented to Standards Board revealed the complexity of the issue. Do we want to discriminate against entirely worthwhile enterprises such as Blue Skies, who employ over 1000 people in Ghana and produce organic cut pineapple ? Because they avoid the use of Modified Atmosphere Packaging the only way that Blue Skies can get their products to the UK market in time is via air freight. And what about the importer of organic salads who is let down by their regular suppliers and faces the choice of bringing in a small amount of product by air or losing his supermarket listing when he is unable to supply ? How does avoiding air freight and losing his precious shelf-space help the organic farmers who supply him? And at a time when the demand for fair trade products is at an all time high should we be making life more difficult for growers in the South who have joint organic and fair trade certified products travelling in the cargo holds of passenger aircraft which would be flying anyway ?

These are complicated issues to which there is no one simple solution. And yet we realise that we must do something as public concern over air freight is growing rapidly. The decision we took and announced in Cardiff was a one year review during which time the Soil Association will produce a Green Paper on the options that exist. Even this decision proved intensely newsworthy and was covered by the BBC, Channel 4 and virtually all major newspapers. Some journalists tried to play the story into “Soil Association bans air freight” but that is not the case (although it makes for a better headline). I do not know where we will get to in a year but I hope that an outright ban will not be necessary – my personal view is that we should be informing citizens via product labels saying ‘imported by sea/air/truck’ and allowing them to make their own decisions. One supermarket told me that the last time they mentioned air freight on their labels it was to promote it as a good thing because products arrived quicker and fresher !

Over the next year there will be much consultation with key stakeholders and you can get involved in this process. Come along to the organic seminars at Natural Products Europe, listen to the arguments and make your views known. The Soil Association are committed to being a transparent and responsive organisation so the more debate we can stimulate in these areas the better. I look forward to seeing you there !