Sunday, 13 January 2008

Organic v Local Food - Head to Head or Room for Both?

One of the questions facing those interested in marketing and branding is whether the rise of local foods means that sales of organic produce might suffer. A trawl through latest data suggests that there is room for both to grow, as the main reasons for purchase are different.

Local Foods
The FSA did a consumer survey in March last year which showed that the prime reasons for buying local foods are "Supports local business" (57% agreeing) and "Supports the local economy" (51%). 18% bought because they "know where the producers are", 12% because local foods mean less air miles, and 11% because the food tastes fresher.

The age group most likely to buy local food is older, and purchasers are wealthier, from social class ABC1.

Consumers in this survey have a strict definition of what constitutes a local food. 40% feel that local means produced within 10 miles of where the product is sold. A further 20% feel it should come from their county, and 15% from either their own county or one next door. 20% feel that local means "from my region", but that number is heavily skewed by consumers in Northern Ireland, 63% of whom say that "local" means from their country.

The FSA findings about support for local producers being a big reason for buying local foods are similar to a survey done by the Institute of Grocery Distribution in March 2006 which showed that 31% of consumers buy local for this reason. In this survey consumers were less strict in their definition of what constitutes local food with the majority (52%) saying that it should be produced within 30 miles of where it was sold, or where the consumer lived. The IGD survey also suggests that the main purchasers of local food are older and more affluent. The major difference between the two surveys is that IGD found that "freshness" was the biggest reason for buying local (64% agreeing). My own market research, carried out in January 2007, suggests that supporting local businesses in general and farmers in particular is the major reason for buying local, with freshness, better animal welfare and less food miles all cited as important to consumers.

Organic Food

The reasons why people buy organic food are more varied, and, according to the Condor Organic project (EU wide study with the UK piece carried out by Surrey University), seem to result from a belief that its just better - for health, a longer life, taste, the environment, animal welfare. This view is supported by market research agency TNS who are reporting that environmental benefits of organic food are now becoming more important to consumers alongside health benefits. My own research indicates that it is a bundle of beliefs about organic food that encourages purchase, not one single benefit. Certainly the big share of market held by organic baby food (44% according to the Soil Association) seems to indicate a belief in the health and safety of organic food, at least for tiny bodies. Organic purchasers tend to be social class AB (Soil Association). The biggest barrier to organic food purchase remains expense, as all studies point out.

Future prospects
It does appear that local food and organics are bought for different reasons. Local food purchase seems to stem first from a wish to support local businesses, and despite the odd finding from the FSA, from a belief that local will be fresher. Organic purchase is much more complicated. There is no reason why local food should not also be organic, which may help sales in the organic sector.Equally, the local foods sector will expand whether organic or not, because of a growing wish among consumers to support their local producers, and who are prepared to pay a bit more for local, but perhaps not the premium often required for organic food.
Undoubtedly there will be competition between the two sectors, but there does appear to be room for both.
One last thought. Strong brands based on quality products will still be important in both sectors to differentiate between producers - think of a farmers market where there are often several stalls selling the same thing.


ollie said...

Good analysis Colette. There is so much research out there on organic consumers, that it hard to fully encapsulate them. Some research suggests that there has been a shift from environment towards health, other research suggests that it is the variety of benefits organic offers that attracts people.
I'm not sure if I'd fully share your optimism however. For example, if you have a chance to look at the chapter by Bruce Scholten in the book sociological perspectives of organic agriculture (in which I also have a chapter) you'd see some tension there. And even the air miles selling point for local food has an environmental dimension, which feeds into organic environmental issues.
I would agree that there is of course room for both, and that consumers may well start to go for both, but I think it will be a 'creative conflict' relationship.

Colette Burke said...

Ollie, thank you for the feedback.It is indeed difficult to get to the bottom of what makes people buy one thing over another, particularly in food. The words "creative conflict" sum it up well.
Hopefully both local and organic will grow, albeit still remaining more niche than mainstream.That way farmers have a specific sector at which to target their production, ideally picking up a few extra £'s (or Euros)on the way.