The Soil Association’s annual month-long celebration of all things organic – Organic September – is under way once more. And on the back of some encouraging sales figures the charity is looking for the organic sector to break the £2billion mark by the end of the year. Produce Business UK speaks to some leading figures in the organic market and hears why fresh produce is central to this growth
September might not be traditionally seen as the time for new beginnings – the spring months take that honour – but still, as summer gives way to autumn there is the unmistakeable feel of a slate being wiped clean. And yes, resolutions being made. Which probably goes some way to explaining why the Soil Association choose the month of going back to school, the harvest and leaves starting to fall from the trees as a time to celebrate all things organic.
Organic September is the charity’s annual month-long chance to promote organic in one concerted push – from raising its profile to providing a platform for people to talk about organic to growing sales. And this year’s campaign comes on the back of an encouraging 12 months for the organic sector. Sales might have slumped at the back end of the last decade as consumers tightened their purse strings in the wake of the financial meltdown, but slowly, and surely, the organic market is once again moving in the right direction.
Figures from Nielsen data released in June demonstrated that the overall growth of organic sales in the year to 18 June had increased by over 5% (actually 5.2%). At that point the Soil Association said that it expected the market to reach and exceed £2 billion by the end of the year.
Clare McDermott, business development director at Soil Association Certification, is particularly effusive when she talks about the buoyancy of the organic market and the boost that Organic September can provide. She says: “At the moment the organic market is growing significantly better than the non-organic market. So what we would look to see is further growth on top of that 5.2%.”
Effusive: Clare McDermott of Soil Association Certification
Fresh produce driving sales
And one of the star performers in organic’s continued rise is undoubtedly fresh produce. Mark Haynes, managing director at G’s Fresh says: “It’s clear that there is a growing demand for organic at the moment. Organic September is a great way to focus customers’ attention on organic and link products right through the supply chain, from point of sale to producer. Organic fresh produce is doing very well so we’re really pleased that the Soil Association is continuing to support the whole industry for an added push in September.”
Organic fruit and veg certainly remains central to the offer of organic home delivery specialists Abel & Cole, according to the company’s buying and technical director David Balmer.
“Fresh produce is where we started 28 years ago and remains a key part of our business,” Balmer remarks. “And while we have grown to sell a whole host of other ethically sourced organic groceries, including meat and dairy, fresh produce remains at the heart of what we do. We’re committed to our organic farmers and growers, many of who have been with us for a number of years. One of our top priorities is to promote the benefits of eating organic food, on ourselves and the environment.”
Organic’s famous five
This emphasis on the virtues of organic produce – both in terms of one’s own health and the wellbeing of the planet – is at the core of Organic September. McDermott acknowledges that one of the Soil Association’s shortcomings in the past has been not being clearer enough in informing consumers why they should choose organic. As such, this time around, it has listed five reasons why shoppers should go organic. They are:
1) Reducing your exposure to potentially harmful pesticides
2) The way we farm affects the quality of food we eat
3) The environmental aspects on the planet
4) The impact on wildlife
5) Higher standards of animal welfare
McDermott explains further: “The biggest thing that resonates with the consumer – and this is particularly important when it comes to produce – is reducing your exposure to chemicals. They use the word chemicals. We say pesticides.”
And because – as McDermott notes – talking about “reducing your exposure to potentially harmful pesticides” doesn’t sound that exciting, the Soil Association has recruited a number of ambassadors, including the chefs John Quilter, Anna Jones and Tom Hunt, to talk about what organic means to them in relatable terms via recipes and video content.
The role the Soil Association plays then is providing the platform and enabling consumers to talk about organic, particularly across social media. McDermott says this year’s campaign is a lot more content-driven.
“There are a lot more films and videos,” she explains. “A lot more events that bring together the people who are interested in organic, that are talking about organic and those that want to learn more about organic. And those people help share that message across social media and the press. The call to action across all of this is ‘look for this in your supermarket or your shop’, and then hopefully they’ll see the creative again in store and they’ll see the promotions in store that the retailers are running to push sales.”
Promotions and foodservice
Pleasingly, retailers across the spectrum – from the multiples to discounters via the specialist organic outlets – are all engaged with the campaign. Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose and Ocado are running a range of activities, including on pack promotion using the Soil Association’s Organic September stickers, range promotions, magazine features and sampling throughout September. The large independents such as Whole Foods, Planet Organic and As Nature Intended are also involved.
McDermott says that around 3,000 Point of Sale toolkits have also been distributed to independent retailers that stock organic and to restaurants. Foodservice then is another key component in expanding the organic sector. As McDermott points out not only does such a strategy increase the organic market it normalises the idea of organic.
“If you have organic produce in schools and hospitals that is a way for people to experience it in an everyday setting,” she explains. “And given that one in three meals is eaten outside the home the quality of that food is really important. The other thing that we’ve launched in Scotland and we’ll be rolling out to the rest of the UK is a scheme for restaurants that serve organic. It doesn’t have to be a fully organic restaurant – not 100% – but it starts at 15% of what they serve. So again it opens up the opportunity for more supply into that end of foodservice.”
When it comes to organic fresh produce, carrots, root vegetables, tomatoes bananas, soft fruit, apples and salad are all driving sales. McDermott says it’s all positive when talk to turns to organic fresh produce – and she cites a 2014 report released in conjunction with Newcastle University as a major contributory factor. That data showed how the levels of antioxidants in fresh produce are nutritionally higher in organic produce compared to non-organic.
“Since then we’ve seen heavy growth across those areas,” she enthuses. “So that is certainly one way of growing the market – by actually telling people and helping them understand a little bit better.”
This is backed up by Abel & Cole’s Balmer. He says: “Organic food has never been as popular as it is now. With increasing focus on food health, people are actively looking for businesses that can reduce or eliminate the chemicals, antibiotics and additives frequently found in food. The rise of foodiness and a trend for artisan products naturally encourages people to eat organically, and pay for the taste and quality that can be achieved particularly in fresh produce and meat. It’s this resurgent popularity that’s encouraged us to open our first pop-up organic restaurant in London’s trendy Shoreditch.”
Balmer believes the rise of “foodiness” encourages organic consumption
Keeping the organic conversation going
And while much of the focus on organic quite rightly looks at speaking directly to consumers, dialogue all along the supply chain is being maintained. McDermott states it’s vital that buyers understand what organic is: what it brings and what the difference is.
“We have regular conversations with all the major multiples,” she says. “We also talk to people about the market and show them where the opportunity is. We are doing that currently. Obviously, the whole multiple market is experiencing a lot of change at the moment so it’s an ongoing process. But we work very closely with them to demonstrate what organic is about. We have conversations all down the supply chain.”
But there are still drawbacks – not everything is rosy in the organic garden. Availability is still a problem. McDermott says that among the hurdles to overcome is ensuring that retailers understand the role organic plays in their strategies. Mercifully, steps are being taken to rectify this.
McDermott says: “Back in May we held a packers’ produce forum, hosted by G’s Fresh out in Ely and that conversation included the retailers, the main produce packers, ourselves… the NFU was there and we all talked about what we need to do to get organic on shelves. Consumers are looking for it – they are willing to shop around, so it’s trying to make it easier for them. I think that having that availability and driving the sales and therefore ensuring there is enough space in store for retailers commercially is key.”
Organic September forms the third point in a three-pronged attack in keeping organic produce in the public eye. Christmas (when McDermott says people will often choose organic because it fits with the idea of doing something special at that time of year) and the Soil Association’s Best of Organic Market awards – the BOOMs in May – are the other dates on the calendar.
“We try to talk about the key things at the right time on social media,” McDermott explains. “We’ve increased the social noise or buzz about organic by 45% in the past two years. So by making it part of everyday activity we then amplify it at these three moments. That’s my aim for how we drive sales and keep them going.”
Organic goes mainstream
So what does the future look like? The Soil Association predicts that sales of organic will be at £2.5bn by 2020. It has also just undertaken a significant piece of research that indicates that consumers – significantly across the mainstream – are looking for organic produce to answer many of their questions about food provenance.
“We see it as sustainable growth rather than in the past where it’s been a trend,” McDermott says. “We see it as something that is being built into an everyday shopping repertoire. And not necessarily everything you have to buy is organic. That might be right for some people, but it isn’t what’s going to make organic mainstream. It’s making those big pieces easy for people to buy.”
Most importantly for the fresh produce sector, fruit and vegetables are at the heart of this effort to seduce the mainstream.
“I want fresh produce to be a leading driver of that,” McDermott concludes. “It’s the first thing that people come to on organic. It’s where they are most likely to try organic, and that is reflected in the penetration of carrots, for example. And so if fresh produce can take the lead, and fresh produce and the retailers can take the lead, working with how to increase that share of organic on fresh produce, that will not only drive fresh produce sales but organic sales overall.”