Beyond organics: the role of competitive ethics

Ethical food companies that have profited from going organic are increasingly seeing that designation as only one in a series of evolving steps to reach consumers looking for higher standards of sourcing, quality and healthfulness of foods. Such companies are experiencing the same consumer and retail prodding that textile companies such as Nike faced during the past decade when they were forced to amend their sweatshop-labour practices in order to adopt a more ethical business model.

Even in the unlikely event that world regulatory bodies were to acknowledge the scientifically proven fact that organic foods are healthier, safer and more nutritious than their conventional counterparts, that message might not matter to consumers who see organics as just another imprimatur of quality. Products considered to be ethical, such as those making fair-trade, local, biodynamic and sustainability claims — as well as organic — saw double-digit growth in 2005. While the global organics market dwarfs the others — it was estimated at more than $36 billion in 2005 — the newer ethical market segments are growing faster, especially fair trade.

"When I got started 20 years ago people wanted an ingredient that was organic," said George Kologridis, president of Organic Sourcing and member of the Organic Trade Association's quality-assurance committee. "Then it was certified organic. Then it was kosher. There will probably be something else down the pike. Fair trade is the new thing that gets brought up. If the fair-trade people follow the lead of organics and get certification, I believe it can be a workable component."

In the UK alone, sales of certified fair trade products rose 46 per cent last year to $570 million, with most of that in the coffee, tea and banana sectors.

Some of these newer designations, such as fair trade or locally grown, are also an attempt to maintain the original essence and spirit — the ethics — of the organic movement in the face of large corporations moving into the organic area without necessarily being aligned with organic values — nor plowing their profits back into the sector.

"There's an impression out there — perhaps fomented against bigger organics producers — the Organics Inc players — that people want organic to be small companies on bucolic farms," said Steve Hoffman, president of Compass Natural, a Colorado-based agency serving natural, organic, sustainable and socially responsible businesses. "It would be nice if some of these larger mainstream companies would embrace organics across all their brands. Multinational companies should adopt the organic mission, not just for the sake of market share. For instance, I'd like to see more sustainability in their packaging and shipping."

Others assert that values-based food designations will help fill in the blanks that are being created by the industrialisation of organics. Nobody knows where it will end, or whether it is even possible to create a global food supply that is predominantly natural, organic, kosher, local, fair trade, sustainable ? the list goes on.

Casting ethics aside, Lisa Bell, principal at Crescendo Communications in Colorado, noted: "All of these designations are a race to the top: biodynamic, fair trade, local. They help you differentiate your products in the marketplace."

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