Food marketers face Australian dilemmas in promoting ethical foods

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 27th May 2015

Jan Davis is a contributor to Australian Food News.


Every day, we hear more about the need for our food to be sustainable, green, local, and ethical.
Every day, we hear more about the need for our food to be sustainable, green, local, and ethical.

Every day, we hear more about the need for our food to be sustainable, green, local, and ethical.

When a farming system or a food product is described as ethical, my hackles always go up. Who decides what’s ethical and what’s not? And why are some sets of ethics perceived to be superior to others?

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who knowingly advocates activities that are harmful to the environment or animals. Certainly most of the farmers I know are passionately committed to caring for their land and their livestock and to ensuring they leave the farm in a better state than it was when they moved in.

But I digress. Today I want to look at the phenomenon of so-called ‘ethical’ food purchasing trends.

David Hughes is Emeritus Professor of Food Marketing at Imperial College London. He has an unparalleled knowledge of global food issues and opportunities; and is a regular visitor to Australia. In some recently released research, he investigated consumer attitudes to ‘ethical’ food.

For the purposes of this exercise, ‘ethical’ was defined as a broadly ‘green’ bundle of products marketed as organic, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, vegetarian meat alternatives, animal welfare-friendly, etc.  Importantly, Hughes makes it clear that this doesn’t mean that conventional food is non-ethical – rather, that this is a set of market identifiers.

His findings indicate that, from pretty much a standing start 15 years ago, consumers in developed countries worldwide are increasingly demanding that much more is included in the food they buy than they did in the past.

In the UK, consumer expenditure on ethical food and drink products increased ten-fold between 1999 and 2014. It is estimated that this sector now comprises around eight per cent of total food and drink purchases.

Here in Australia, fifty-five per cent of people say that they think buying locally sourced food is very important to them, up ten per cent from four years ago; and eighty-five percent of people say that they prefer fresh food to be sourced locally or, at least, nationally.

Hughes says that this means there is a clear message to retailers here: shopper loyalty will be higher for stores that support local farmers and businesses, support the local economy and minimise environmental impacts.

So, green is the way to go.

But, hang about – this is only part of the story.

Hughes goes on to say that recent UK consumer surveys on food purchase patterns show that price and the attractiveness of promotions are far and away the two most important things influencing purchase behaviour, followed by quality and taste, and healthiness. Ethical/eco-friendly factors only rate at tenth place. Research undertaken in Australia shows a similar situation, with price and appearance ranked streets ahead of other factors.

These apparently conflicting research results go to prove something we all know: people don’t always do what they say they will do. Consumers say they want to support local producers, and they say they buy Australian because that’s what they are expected to say. Yet, actual purchasing data clearly shows they are not walking their talk.

The take out message from these research findings is that consumers are increasingly demanding more of those who produce their food. Whether it be local, animal welfare-friendly, environmentally sustainable, chemical-free or whatever, the green bar is rising inexorably. However, at the same time, those same consumers have also made it clear that they won’t pay a premium for more ‘ethical’ food. Instead, they will simply discount products that fail to meet their ever-rising expectations about the food they feed their families.

This situation resonates strongly with Tasmanian farmers, who are constantly being told by people with no skin in the game that their future lies in producing high value niche products on the assumption that returns will be higher. Whilst there are clearly opportunities in this direction, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

Farmers everywhere today are facing continual downward pressure on returns at farm gate and rapid upward pressure on input costs. At the same time, as we’ve seen here, consumer expectations are constantly escalating.

You don’t have to be Einstein to see the approaching iceberg.

Professor Julian Cribb, the well-known Australian science commentator, was spot on the money when he said that we all need to “value our food a little more, demand it be produced by less toxic and more natural systems, and be willing to reward local farmers much better for growing it sustainably, with care, skill and wisdom”.

Jan Davis has worked in senior agribusiness roles across Australia for thirty years. Tagged as Tasmania’s top political lobbyist and one of the most influential people in the state; she works as an agribusiness and government relations consultant. To read her full biography click HERE.