The summer holidays are only just starting, but already the Soil Association is planning its month-long celebration of all things organic
When the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood declared that those who could not afford organic food should “eat less”, the media had a field day denouncing her as being out of touch with the reality of family food budgets.
However, as Westwood later clarified, she was in fact discussing the issue of how much factory-farmed meat is being consumed, and how it is better to eat less, but better quality animal produce.
Question of cost
When it comes to organic fruit and vegetables, the issue is similar. The idea that organic fresh produce costs significantly more than conventionally grown produce is increasingly being challenged, especially with discounter Aldi launching a range last year including items such as organic carrots that were 35% cheaper than those sold in Tesco.
Commentators interpreted the launch as another move towards luring in middle-class customers, by offering what has come to be seen as a produce range that is only desirable to those on higher incomes.
It is the still commonly held (and sometimes accurate) perception that buying organic equates to a huge grocery bill that the Soil Association will be tackling as part of its annual September campaign to raise awareness of the benefits of switching for shoppers.
Back on the shopping list
Since the repercussions of the 2008 global recession kicked in, and supermarkets started to clear shelf space of organic produce as consumers cut back on spending, the market has worked hard to get back on shopping lists.
And it has been rewarded with strong growth; we reported last month that Kantar Worldpanel figures for the 52 weeks to May 14 show a 5.2% growth in sales value across the organic produce category, up to £192.6 million. Both fruit and vegetables share the trend, but fruit (+9.7% to £70.1m) has outstripped vegetable growth (+2.7% to £121.5m). According to the Soil Association, this is significant growth against a background of low food prices and food spending.
Clare McDermott, business development director at the Soil Association, says Organic September has made a real difference to organic sales, especially when the organic industry comes together to support it.
“Last year we saw an uplift in organic sales of 4% in just September,” she adds. “This year, with a brand new design, exciting logo and interactive digital campaign, Organic September will be even more successful making sure buying and using organic is front of mind for consumers. We are targeting a sales increase of 6% based on data from Nielsen from 2014.
“We want to make sure all organic food and farming are featured. We have built in a weekly category focus to encourage consumers to make a small change, so that it’s easier for them to use and choose organic products each day.”
McDermott is hoping everyone in the industry will get involved; from putting the Organic September logo on product packaging, displaying posters, talking to customers, running special offers or engaging in Organic September social-media activity.
She continues: “All areas of the industry can engage and the Soil Association is tying everything together with a new digital hub, for communication between consumers, retailers and producers to help share real stories about how organic can make a difference.”
Mike Kilcourse, commercial director at Tree of Life, one of the UK’s largest wholesalers of natural products says this is a great time for the industry to promote itself.
“Interest in organic foods has been growing steadily in 2015. Sentiment among our retailer customers is positive. Last year, marketing and promotional activities in all sectors helped grow sales above the yearly average,” he explains.
“The Soil Association’s campaigns, especially the month-long promotion, go a long way to help raise awareness. That coupled with new products and innovations from brands means we’re supplying customers with greater choice and helping supply meet consumer demand.”
Kilcourse’s views are echoed by Mark Rawson, director of the online organic retailer Natural Vitality, who says lower costs are just one of the reasons for increased sales.
Why buy organic?
“Many people are choosing to buy organic foods for health reasons – a recent study from Newcastle University showed that switching to organic fruit, vegetables and cereals would provide additional antioxidants equivalent to eating between one and two extra portions of fruit and vegetables a day,” he says.
“Another reason is taste. For example, we are seeing a real increase in sales of our organic range of Natural Vitality houmous and the feedback we’re getting is that it’s because of its superior taste. We won Gold at this year’s Taste of the West Awards. I believe that much of this is down to the high-quality, natural organic ingredients that we use.
“I think the ethical component to organic foods is also important to many people, the fact that they are produced using environmentally friendly farming methods.”
As part of the September campaign, the Soil Association’s website will feature an interactive Organic30 list to encourage consumers to ‘Organic’ their September by making small changes. The list will show how these small changes all amount to a big difference for the environment – making it clear that organic farming supports wildlife, and the environment.
This consumer concern over the environmental impact of some farming practices is one of the reasons for last year’s revamp of the Duchy Organics brand, founded by HRH The Prince of Wales over 20 years ago.
Waitrose has an exclusive licence for the brand and a spokesman for the retailer says the new packaging aims to reflect better the core values of good food, good farming and good causes which the brand is well known for.
The industry investment in branding and marketing is helping to get the message across that organic produce is not just for niche health-store shelves, or for the wealthy.
It is a market that is open to all shoppers, and even though September will see a concentrated celebration, organic eating is being positioned as a realistic choice for more people throughout the year.