Chef David Chang said it best: “Everyone's opening up these fucking farm-to-table bullshit restaurants. How else are you supposed to cook? You're supposed to get the best ingredients possible. Do you want a pat on the back?”
Yet, terms like “farm-to-table” and “organic” are still used as buzzwords when it comes to food marketing. Entire academic journals are dedicated to food marketing--whether for grocery stores, restaurants or other foodservice operations--which shouldn’t come as a surprise. Local, organic products are the 21st century version of canned meals and TV dinners. Clearly not from a nutritional standpoint, but from a marketing standpoint. There are big bucks to be made selling such items. In 2011, local food sales were projected to reach $7 billion in the United States alone (DeWeerdt, 2009). Seven billion dollars for food that used to be the standard and norm, grown in your own garden, not sold to gigantic grocery retailers.
This is by no means an evaluation of the ethics behind it, but it is interesting to consider how organic and local products are strategically marketed. If anything, just becoming aware of it makes you a savvier consumer.
Organic consumers aren’t the norm. A Danish study found that only 11% of participants were organic consumers, with another 18% being conventional and the remaining 71% choosing a mixture of the two (Denver & Christensen, 2014). So, how do you differentiate between these groups, or in other words, who buys what and why?
One proposed explanation is described by the Theory of Planned Behaviour (we will call it the TPB). The TPB was not specifically designed to look at consumer food preferences, but intentions. The theory posits that intentions and the actions that may or may not follow are influenced by a combination of attitudes, social norms and perceived behavioural control.
Researchers have examined how the TPB relates to buying local. Not surprisingly, they found that having a positive attitude towards buying local was associated with the result of going out and purchasing such foods. The same positive correlation was found for perceived behavioural control: the more that consumers felt like they had autonomy in choosing and buying local, the more likely they were to do so. When it came to social norms, however, a negative association was found. Those who bought local didn’t do it because everyone else was too, instead this mentality actually deterred them from purchasing local foods (Campbell & Fairhurst, 2014).
Does a finding like this mean that heavy or aggressive marketing of local and organic foods to the everyday consumer actually stops a portion of the population from purchasing it? That’s unlikely. Henryks, Cooksey and Wright (2014) identified seven different factors related to purchasing organic, one of which was false assumptions. One could argue that critical consumers will be skeptical of organic, local foods sold at large grocery retailers. How can you really know for sure if the garlic you are buying from China is organic or not? And if it’s coming all the way from China to Canada, does the fact that it’s organic beat out the local appeal and even matter anymore? My point is, people that think like this aren’t going to not purchase local, organic food, they are just going to go to greater lengths to ensure that it’s actually what it says it is. The grocery store may lose a customer but the farmer’s market will gain one.
Habit, availability, visibility and accessibility, and visual and olfactory cues are all factors that influence whether or not people buy organic and local (Henryks, Cooksey and Wright, 2014). But, price, it trumps them all. If organic continues to cost two, three, even four times as much as conventional, it will remain inaccessible for much of the population. Brands can market their products as much as they want, but attractive packaging and pretty labels won’t make them any more affordable.
So, the question then becomes, “How enticing can companies make organic, local foods, such that everyone feels compelled to purchase them no matter what?”
Considering that the organic aisle only makes up a small portion of most grocery stores, I would say we are not there quite yet.
Campbell, J.M., & Fairhurst, A. (2014). Billion dollar baby: Local foods and U.S. grocery. Journal of Food Products Marketing, 20(3), 215-228.
Denver, S., & Christensen, T. (2014). Consumers’ grouping of organic and conventional food products – implications for the marketing of organics. Journal of Food Products Marketing, 20(4), 408-428.
DeWeerdt, S. (2009). Is local food better? World Watch Magazine, 22(3). Retrieved
December 12, 2014, from http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6064
Henryks, J., Cooksey, R., & Wright, V. (2014). Organic food at the point of purchase:
Understanding inconsistency in consumer choice patterns. Journal of Food Products Marketing, 20(5), 452-475.