[vendtalk] FW: 'Ethical Eating' Goes Mainstream

Kevan Worley kevanworley at blindmerchants.org
Tue Mar 16 16:28:33 UTC 2010

'Ethical Eating' Goes Mainstream

While an interest in 'ethically produced' food used to be a niche
preoccupation of food co-op habitues, it has become a mass-market phenomenon


Mark Dolliver 


March 15, 2010


As the economic downturn has dragged on, we've grown accustomed to hearing
about consumers watching their pennies as they do their food shopping.


However, survey data released this month by Context Marketing, a
strategic-marketing- communications firm, points to another behavior that
has been taking hold: While an interest in "ethically produced" food used to
be a niche preoccupation of food co-op habitues, it has become a mass-market


If you are what you eat, many consumers want to be something more than
lowest-priced commodities -- and often for practical, self-serving reasons.


To start with, the survey (conducted in January) sought to identify the
attributes that distinguish ethically produced foods in consumers' minds. In
order to qualify as an "ethical food," more than nine in 10 respondents
agreed, the product must "avoid harming the environment" (93 percent), "meet
high safety standards" (92 percent), "use environmentally sustainable
practices" (91 percent), "avoid inhumane treatment of animals" (91 percent)
and "be produced to high quality standards" (91 percent).


Though altruistic considerations are conspicuous on this roster, it's
important to realize these don't banish self-interest among consumers who
buy these foods. "One insight from the research is that consumers bring a
strong streak of pragmatism to ethical food choices," says Bob Kenney,
Context Marketing principal. "While most believe ethical foods make the
world a better place in terms of concerns like the environment, consumers
also use ethical claims as markers to identify high-quality foods that are
safer to feed their families."



This tendency to see "ethical" attributes as a marker for consumer-centric
advantages is reflected in the finding that 65 percent of respondents are
"more willing to believe brand claims about high quality when I know a food
is ethically produced." And it's telling that the number of respondents
agreeing that "ethically produced food is healthier to eat" (60 percent) and
"safer to eat" (58 percent) easily exceeded the number saying they "feel
virtuous when purchasing ethically produced foods" (43 percent). Sure, some
consumers are feeding their own sense of self-worth when they buy such
goods, but more are intent on the actual nutrition.


The sense of a practical personal benefit in buying ethical foods helps
explain why many consumers say they're willing to put their money where
their mouths are and pay a premium for these goods. Sixty-nine percent of
respondents to the survey said they're willing to pay more "for food that
promises to be produced to higher ethical standards," including 12 percent
of respondents who are willing to pay a premium of more than 10 percent.  


One part of the survey presented respondents with claims they might
encounter "on a food package or in a food advertisement" and asked them to
say which of these would lead them to believe the product was "ethically
produced." Here again, the findings reflected a consumer perception that
ethical foods offer practical benefits. Getting the most mentions as
"important" or "very important" was "healthy/nutritious" (cited by 69
percent), followed by "no trans fat" (57 percent) and "no supplemental
hormones" (55 percent). There was a four-way tie (at 51 percent) among
"humanely raised," "no antibiotics," "no artificial preservatives, colors"
and "produced in USA." "Natural" (at 50 percent) outscored "produced
locally" (45 percent), "sustainably produced" (38 percent), "Fair Trade
certified" (37 percent), and "organically produced" (36 percent). Farther
down the food chain were "from small family farms" (31 percent) and
"artisan/handmade" (25 percent).



Why does "natural" so far outrank "organically produced"? "'Organic" has
become the new normal in terms of many foods," says Kenney. "As more and
more organic products came to market in the past decade, shoppers began
considering organic as the new standard, even in private label. This is
especially true as organic prices came down. We expect food to be organic
now in many areas. So 'organic' is no longer a big issue with consumers, but
I think 'natural' is still a concern for many. The 'natural' claim, for all
its misuse and confusion, reflects the consumer's desire to not see certain
things added to foods, things such as antibiotics, supplemental hormones and
artificial colors."


The survey found respondents giving something of a mixed verdict on the
voguish topic of "eating local." Sixty-six percent subscribed to the view
that "locally produced food is always preferable," but just 42 percent
agreed that locally produced food "is safer to eat." There may also be a
sense that eating local is not all it's cracked up to be as a method for
saving the planet. "More than a few experts have expressed concern that
unreservedly 'going local' on food oversimplifies the ethical issues
involved," Kenney says. "Part of it is certainly rooted in ethical concerns
about the environment, but I think there's also an intuitive logic
supporting it. Fresh food like fruit and produce that is transported very
long distances often does not taste as good as that produced locally, and it
typically costs more. It may look good, but the quality of experience and
the value [are] not there."


Speaking of value, are respondents overstating their willingness to pay a
premium for ethical foods because that seems like the "correct" answer to
give? All things considered, Kenney thinks not. He acknowledges that people
"can and do respond to surveys in ways that express their ideals more than
their actual behaviors, so caution is always useful when interpreting the
results of any given survey." And he notes that widespread willingness to
pay more is not what one might expect to find when the economy is bad.



"However, we asked this same question in slightly different ways in the past
three surveys we conducted," he adds, "and consumers were fairly consistent
in their answers. In a survey last summer, we found that 76 percent said
they would pay more for 'responsible brands.' Last fall, 72 percent said
they would pay more for food they see as 'healthier, safer or produced to
higher ethical standards.' And now, this survey found 69 percent saying they
will pay more for ethically produced food. I have seen other surveys that
report similar findings. So overall, I think the numbers represent a real
trend." Kenney also emphasizes, though, that this willingness to pay more is
not a blank check. "A point to keep in mind is that most who said they are
willing to pay more for ethical food will pay only a little more --
somewhere between 1 percent and 10 percent more," he says.  


Nor do consumers approach foods' ethical claims with an uncritical eye.
Seventy-six percent of respondents said they "have become skeptical about
some ethical food claims because they do not always mean what they imply."
Says Kenney, "If ethical claims are important to consumers, they must stand
up to the same level of scrutiny given other brand claims. Consumers
approach most brand claims today, not just ethical claims, with a healthy
sense of skepticism. But ethical claims, when used appropriately, may be one
of the best ways for food producers to engage consumers, and especially


The female skew is evident in the polling data. Most notably, 75 percent of
women, vs. 63 percent of men, said they're willing to pay more for ethical
foods. Women were also more apt than men to say it matters to them that farm
workers and farm animals are treated humanely. "So in categories where women
purchase the lion's share of the products, such as groceries, effectively
engaging women on the level of personal values can be a competitive
advantage," Kenney says.



Interest in ethical foods is also highest among younger consumers, though
it's common across the age spectrum. For example, 67 percent of the survey's
20-34-year-olds agreed that ethically produced food "is healthier to eat,"
vs. 60 percent of the 35-49-year-olds and 56 percent of the 60-64s.
Likewise, 48 percent of the 20-34s said they're "more loyal to ethically
produced food brands than to other brands," vs. 44 percent of 35-49s and 35
percent of 50-64s.


With the bad economy having constrained all sorts of spending and steered
consumers toward lower-priced goods, will pent-up demand for ethical foods
bring a surge in sales once the economy recovers? "I don't look at it as
pent-up demand so much as see it as the early stages of a significant new
trend," says Kenney.


"There clearly is something important going on in our evolving relationship
with our food sources. You can see it in the number of popular books and
films that continue to offer new thinking on such issues as healthy diets,
sustainable farming and our responsibilities toward farm animals," Kenney
added. "We are starting to articulate our concerns in small ways and, as we
become more clear on the real issues, I suspect society will embrace greater
changes. I'm sure an improved economy will help speed that trend." 


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