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Retail Ethics and Green Retailing
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Retail Ethics and Green Retailing 2012:

Centre for Retail Research

mixed fruit and vegetablesRetailers are keen to show that they are green, recycling-friendly, fair-trading, waste-conscious, socially-responsible and energy-conserving. Whilst they are often condemned for 'greenwash' they have spent £millions on improving their merchandise, systems and stores to make themselves greener and more ethical.

Green Retailers Need Green Customers
Green retail involves both supply and demand.

  • Retailers want to be greener operationally, to sell more green merchandise, and to gain a commercial advantage by being green.
  • Customers often want to be green(er) and do their best for animal welfare, the environment etc and their families (or many want this). But they are not expert, they can be cynical about what might be considered as greenwash, and even those who want to do the best need better information to make sensible decisions.

But It's a Network Out There
If retailers are to cut their carbon footprints, be more ethical and green(er), they need to intervene at all stages of the product lifecycle:

  • their suppliers and competitors in order that everyone is using greener processes and there is no commercial disadvantage in doing so;
  • the retailer's own logistics, sales operations and customer delivery (if any) to reduce the carbon footprint, reduce energy and resource costs, and be greener;
  • their own customers so they understand what the retailer is doing and how customers can make reasoned choices about merchandise, buy food produced under more humane conditions or garments and stationery produced in less damaging ways. This means that customers need information; retailers probably have to be involved in one or more of the accreditation schemes. Customers need to know, also, what the different schemes, like Red Tractor, Marine Stewardship, Carbon Trust, organic and free range actually mean.

Retailers can also sell more socially-responsible and greener products, promote improved lifestyles to their customers, support fair trade socially-responsible organisations and agitate for change.

Yes But, People are Different

The problem is that retailers cannot go much faster than their customers. Some shoppers want 100% Fairtrade or organic but the majority are far more nuanced. They will buy: some goods with no apparent green features, others that must be produced humanely, and other goods where they want to buy cheaply but look for some justification that it is OK (greenish) through a certification label, eg Red Tractor. Although most customers may claim to be concerned about retail practices and the environment this does not affect everyone's shopping habits every time.

When Iceland changed its name to Iceland.com and declared it would only sell organic vegetables it lost credibility. When the Co-op and Sainsbury's did similar things incrementally this was seen as very worthwhile. The Co-op increased the number of Fairtrade products across a variety of categories and declared that Co-op own label chocolate would only be Fairtrade: Sainsbury's became the most important retailer of Fairtrade bananas and it now claims to be the largest Fairtrade retailer internationally.

Retailers are Doing Something

Since about 2008, all the major retailers have had an environmental or ethical strategy dealing with their operational costs and systems, informing customers and trying to improve their suppliers. These plans are not broadbrush approaches but involve detailed changes to operations and procedures and strict timetables. In the UK the best known is probably Marks & Spencer which has a £200m "eco-plan" ("Plan A", "There is no Plan B") to make it carbon neutral in five years. M&S said this was its contribution to the battle against climate change. By 2012 it expected to be carbon neutral, send no waste to landfill and "set new standards in ethical trading". It has cut waste by 35%, all waste is recycled and goes to anaerobic digesters.

The Co-op Group, is probably the prime mover of all retail environmentalists. It pioneered Fairtrade, won the Business Commitment to the Environment award after reducing its carbon emissions by 86 per cent, and the Environment Leadership Award from Business in the Community.

Sainsbury's, which has been in the ethical business for longer than many, criticised rivals for unrealistic environmental promises, whilst claiming that some initiatives launched by rivals such as M&S and Tesco are just 'playing catch-up' to the work that Sainsbury's has been doing for years. ASDA's strategy is called Green is Normal and they draw attention to the fact that what once might have been seen as strange buying decisions are now widespread and pass without comment (see next section for consumer attitudes). Similarly Tesco's strategy involves a £100 million fund for investment in sustainable environmental technology such as wind turbines, solar panels, combined heat and power and gasification, cutting energy use per square foot by one-half by 2010 against a baseline of 2000. Customers are encouraged to help save energy in their homes, Tesco gives clubcard points to promote its green products, has invested considerably in electricals recycling and pushes free home insultation and inexpensive wireless energy monitors. Tesco has also spent £millions on opening new-concept ecostores (which are carbon neutral) and on carbon-rating many of its products (this last is now discontinued).

M&S and the Co-op are the most highly rated of retailers. A recent report (Ethical Consumer Magazine) drew attention to the Co-op's use in all stores of electricity derived 98% from renewables, sustainable fish in the Co-op and M&S, and M&S' use of sustainable palm oil in its own brand products. M&S is advised on this by the WWF: at one time people like that would have been shown the door. Ethical Consumer judged 17 top supermarket and convenience store groups against a large number of criteria in three categories, environmental, ethical and social responsibility.

Organisations like WRAP (started by the BRC) support a single on-pack recycling label now used on 60,000 lines (90% of grovery). Only 50% of bottles sold via supermarkets are currently recycled. Members of the scheme include Wilkinsons, Aldi, Superdrug, Lakeland, W H Smith as well as all major supermarket groups.

Being Green is a Commercial Opportunity

As well as doing the right things for the right reasons, retailers want to be loved for their commitment to ethical retailing. These are CRR opinions, we have not researched them exhaustively. Everybody schoolboy knows that companies like M&S, Waitrose and the Co-op have done a lot of work and are sincerely committed to ethical retailing. For example none of them sell eggs produced by caged birds. But shoppers are not experts and their perceptions can be based on their attitudes to the retailer. Tesco feels deeply frustrated because the excellent work it does on ethics and green retailing pass mostly unnoticed. It has spent vast sums of money for example in determining the carbon footprint of a significant proportion of its product lines with the Carbon Trust. As one might expect, most of the footprint occurred upstream (ie not controlled by Tesco) - hence reducing the carbon footprint meant that sourcing and producers needed to buy in to the programme and become smarter at what they did. Obviously Tesco suppliers are also Sainsbury suppliers so the company was itself doing a lot to help other retailers reduce their own carbon footprint.

Tesco was cheesed off about this, concerned about the costs, but mostly that its competitors had not joined the scheme and the Carbon Trust label was not well-known by customers. Note that we carried out a small exercise a couple of years ago for the Carbon Trust, but this does not affect the conclusions in this piece.

So there is a systems problem. Retailers would attain their goals more cheaply if they worked together more. The number of labelling and verification schemes would be reduced - and they might mean more to the ordinary shopper. But they all have different views about what needs to be achieved and they also want to get maximum kudos, which may mean adopting a sharply differentiated green plan.

Our view is that inexpert shoppers tend to relate retailer quality to retailer greenness. They may love ASDA, Aldi and Tesco, but they may wrongly think that these companies are not doing much, and they ignore in-store communications. People who shop at Waitrose, M&S and the Co-op expect their ethically-conscious retailers to put a lot of effort into this issue and may look for evidence to check that this is actually occurring. Thus the virtuous are in a virtuous circle and the more utilitarian may seem locked into an apparent unvirtuous circle. The reality of course may be quite different.

There is something that can be done (please ring CRR) but this commentary on Green and Ethical Retailing is not designed as a puff piece for the Centre for Retail Research.

It is Better than You Might Think

New product design, new packaging, changed retail operations and more effective waste management and recycling initiatives has reduced retail energy use and resource use by more than 20% in the last three years.

Amongst shoppers there has been, on average, an increase in purchasing environmentally sustainable products and the growth in Fairtrade, the fact that 2013 will see 51% of all eggs sold in shops produced using free-range methods, and the growth in sustainably-caught fish indicates certain trends.

In contrast, organic purchases have fallen by 10.4% (according to the Co-op) or 5.9% (the Soil Association) to about £1.6 bn between 2009 and 2010.

The Co-operative Bank Ethical Consumerism Report 2011 shows regular overall growth in the UK ethical market shows increased sales from £1.3 bn (1999) to £46.8 bn in 2010 (includes financial products and travel).

UK ethical spending 1999 - 200 £bn
[source: Co-operative Bank Ethical Consumerism Report 2011]

The Total Materials Requirement (TMR) of the British economy (calculated by the Office for National Statistics, ONS) shows that the UK is using fewer and fewer resources. The ONS figures include goods and raw materials produced abroad. TMR is an estimate of all the materials needed to make things we buy or sell abroad.

Total Materials Requirement
2005 - 2 130 million Tonnes
2009 - 1 755 million Tonnes (-17.6%)

Household Waste
2005-06 - 508 kg per person
2008-09 - 457 kg per person (-10.0%)

Food consumed per head
2005 - 2082 kcal per day
2009 - 2054 kcal per day (-1.3%)

Paper (UK production and imports)
2005 - 12.5 million Tonnes
2010 - 10.6 million Tonnes (-15.2%)

Water (customer use)
2005-06 - 11 914 million lts
2009-10 - 11 485 million lts (-3.6%)

Greenhouse Gases (defined as CO2, CH4, N2O, HFC, PFCs and SF6)
2005 - 731 000 thousand Tonnes
2009 - 636 472 thousand Tonnes (-12.9%)

[From an original article by Chris Goodall. Data sourced from ONS]

The TMR, household waste, paper production and greenhouse gases all show a significant fall of one-tenth or more between 2005 and 2009 or 2010. Retail is only one part of these figures, but the point is that the environmental/ethical situation is not static. Some part of these reductions is caused by the recession, but the dip in most categories started around 2005 so the results cannot be completely explained by a fall in production.

However retail and wholesale production of greenhouse gases between 2005 and 2009 was unchanged (!) although the sector represented only 2.6% of all greenhouse gases produced in the UK. But it did cut its acid rain precursor emissions (SO2, NOx, NH3) from 50 to 43 thousand Tonnes in the same period (-14.0%)

Are Customers Ethical?

An IGD study found more people buying goods ethically, Fairtrade sales up from 9% in 2006 to 27% in 2010 and a greater interest in local food with 30% claiming to buy using this criterion. However organic food has fallen: in 2008 24% were buying organic food sometime or all the time, but this was only 17% in 2010.

main/joint household shoppers. Source: IGD Shopper Trends 2010 report
main/joint household shoppers. Source: IGD Shopper Trends 2010 report

The IGD figures about ethical purchasing relate to food and drink and the Co-operative Bank Ethical Consumerism Report 2011 also covers financial services (the Co-op Bank and Smile are the best-known ethical financial institutions in the UK), travel and transport, and 'community (includes shopping locally as a matter of principle) and consumer boycotts. So there are discrepancies regarding coverage. Stripping out the non-retailing elements gives a total of £16.029 bn spent by UK consumers on ethical products via retailers in 2010. This was made up of:

  • Food and drink: £6.6 bn (+5.1% against 2009) with particular growth in Fairtrade, rainforest alliance and sustainable fish, but reductions in organic.
  • The home: £8.085 bn (+13.9% against 2009), the main sectors were mainly energy efficient appliances and boilers and sustainable timber and paper (this last grew 16.8% compared with 2009).
  • Personal products: £1.4 bn (-1.3% against 2009) the main categories being cosmetics, charity shops, and buying for re-use.

The Bank shows that since the recession organic food, ethical clothing and rechargeable batteries have all lost market share, but Fairtrade, sustainable fish supplies, and ethical money have all expanded.

More detailed figures about ethical food and drink from the Co-operative bank's survey are given here. Organic is down 10.4% since 2010 and Fairtrade up 35.8%. But organic is still, at £1.53 bn the largest ethical sector in food and drink.

ethical food and drink
[source: Co-operative Bank Ethical Consumerism Report 2011]

The Figure entitled 'Ethical Behaviours' shows claimed or actual ethical behaviour in 2000 and 2010 and 2011. Our own work (Centre for Retail Research) shows that shoppers often claim to do more virtuous things than they actually do and we have adopted methods of changing the questions that we ask in order to get accurate data rather than the answers which shoppers think we want.

ethics behaviour
[source: Co-operative Bank Ethical Consumerism Report 2011]

The interesting points are:

  • People claimed to be pretty ethical back in the year 2000 (although there was much less ethical purchasing then) so not everybody was telling the truth
  • Key results are probably 'felt guilty about unethical purchases (up from 17% in 2000 to 34% in 2011), 'bought primarily for ethical reasons' (up from 29% to 46%) and 'avoided products on the basis of a company's reputation' (up from 24% to 31%).
  • Between 2010 and 2011 there was some slippage in ethical behaviour: small falls in recycling and in supporting local shops, but small increases in talking/recommending companies for being ethical and a 5% jump in avoiding products on the basis of the company's reputation. The small changes may simply be sampling differences, but they may be significant nevertheless.

'Actively campaigned on environmental/social issues' claimed to be 24% in 2011. That figure is hard to believe unless giving 50p to Animal Aid or FoE is regarded as 'actively campaigning'. Being an 'active campaigner' is obviously the new cool.

The Co-operative Bank's study can be down loaded here
http://www.co-operative.coop/PageFiles/416561607/Ethical-Consumerism-Report-2011.pdf

The 'Categories of Ethical Shopper' Figure shows the breakdown of different kinds of ethical food shopper according to the IGD. It ranges from the 15% ethical evangelists (motto 'if you don't come home with organic food, don't come back at all') to the 21% of shoppers (Conscience Casuals, motto 'I do what I can, sometimes') who make some of their decisions on ethical grounds.

Categories of Ethical Shopper

ethics_graph4 (86K)
Source: IGD Ethical Shopping - Are UK Shoppers Turning Green? report,

The IGD survey found various barriers to widespread adoption of ethical shopping. As might be expected, price was the most important barrier to buying ethically (cited by 52%), lack of availability (=a green option is not stocked) was cited by 31%, lack of knowledge (17%), and lack of trust in green claims made (14%).

The Conclusions (in case you don't get to the end of this article)

  • Green policies. Strategically, most large retailers are now committed to environmentalism through - 'green policies', curbing waste, less packaging, product revamps, reduced energy use, fewer distribution trips, reducing product-miles by sourcing more products from the UK, and using greener energy for their own vehicles.
  • Retailers Probably Do Far More to Green Their Operations than in the Customer-Facing Bits of the Store. Practically-invisible changes to transport, distribution, energy use, waste disposal and supply-factors are being made by most retailers and these are probably more sustainable than the bits the customers can see.
  • Retailers Would do More if the Green Suppliers Were There. Retailers are finding that the waste gathering/processing, biomass and energy saving industry is not yet sufficiently advanced to meet their requirements, so they are having to intervene in these industries themselves.
  • Humane Food and Fairtrade. There has been a shift in obtaining at least some foods from sustainable sources/humane treatment of animals/Fairtrade. This can be patchy. The consumer is often more concerned about price than humane treatment.
  • Consumer Information. Retailers find that customers are often bemused by the different claims/statements about 'what needs to be done' and have tried to provide leaflets, displays and web information to give customers better choices and more relevant information to help customers with specific environmental or humane concerns to shop in confidence.
  • Packaging. Movement on packaging has been slower. Packaging protects goods. De-packaging is problematic if it increases waste and promotes crime. Retailers will make further progress.
  • Subsidies are a Danger. Many retail green policies are helped by subsidies from the government and some policies are only economic with those subsidies. We can expect some of these to be withdrawn in about five years and retailers must be aware of the likelihood of this occurring.
  • Greenwash is a Danger. Customers and green organisations will be anxious to see that retailers carry out all their promises and will rub their noses in it if any are unfulfilled.
  • Environmental Transparency. Customers will expect environmental transparency - "prove your eggs are actually free range" "prove your sweaters are not produced by slave labour" and expect the internet to be used a great deal by savvy suppliers to prove this.
  • A Green Retail Sector? Although farmers' markets have been successful and organic food stores less so, there is no evidence that new environmentally-friendly retailers stand much of a chance in creating new retail chains. Any changes, then, need to come from within the current retail sector.
  • Online Retailing

    There is evidence that many consumers believe that online purchases are more ethical or more environmentally friendly than going shopping. The argument is that online stores do not have the same expensive superstructure and operating costs as the high street. Although there is an additional cost paid by the retailer or by the retailer+customer for delivery, online purchasing may be less costly in overall terms than driving in one's car to a town centre or shopping park. The delivery van loaded with purchases triumphs over the private car.

    However this cannot be an axiom of retail life. People who buy a number of things from different shops will often find it cheaper to buy in person than online, depending on circumstances. Many online retailers may make no or only a small charge for delivery; this may influence one's purchasing decision but it does not affect whether online is greener. The costs of transport will vary from person to person. The economic and the green cost of online retailing may be quite different. People who live near shops or use public transport for their journeys may find that online retailing is not best for them; the same issue is faced when purchasing small or inexpensive items. For people who live in the country, paying a small delivery charge can be cheaper than driving into to a nearby town, but if this means that different vans are driving up and down country roads every day to deliver to your door this may be less green than your driving to town once and buying a few things that you need.

    The Centre is not trying to make a case for or against: the answer to whether online is greener is, 'it depends'.

    Energy Saving

    According to the Carbon Trust, UK retailing accounts for 7% (only 7%) of UK carbon emissions and it should easily be able to cut these by 10% to 20%. Retailers have to make payments for waste sent to landfill; emissions are monitored and charges are levied if these are not reduced; and rising energy costs including an increasing green premium all make it unprofitable to be wasteful and a polluter.

    There has been increasing concern about stores operating in winter with their door open and other wasteful use of energy. The Carbon Trust suggests that the open-door policy costs the retail sector £1 billion and notes that some US towns now ban this practice. The Carbon Trust also estimates that retailers could cut their lighting bills by 20% using refurbishment, lighting management and sensor-based controls.

    The CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme (CRC stands for Carbon Reduction Commitment) is the CO2 emissions trading programme that covers businesses of all kinds, not only retailers. It is mandatory for the 5,000 organisations that used more than 6,000 megawatt hours of electricity in 2008 (and are not subject to EU control over 'major polluters').

    The 2010/2011 - CRC Performance League Table gives a list of companies that perform well (organisations of all kinds, not only retailers) in weighted rank order:

    • The best retailers in the rankings: no. 43, Kesa (ex- Comet); East England Coop; no 56, Morrisons; Home Retail; John Lewis; no 82, M&S; no 93, Tesco; Dunelm; ScotMid Coop; no 153, Lincoln Coop; no 153, Debenhams.
    • Bottom of the League: (all 1301=), Zara; Westfield; Wing Yip; UK Greetings; Carphone Warehouse; Dixons; Diago; DFS; Kelko; BMW; Beales; Amazon and Allders; Kingfisher and IKEA both performed poorly.

    It is important to note that this is just one measure, and it may be wrong.

    What are we to say of the fact that HMRC and the Home Office are among the worst rated, or that the Treasury and the Cabinet Office are among the best?

    Reducing Waste

    There to be no new landfill sites to be commissioned. The landfill tax will increasingly force retailers to use other methods of disposing of their waste. Waitrose plans to divert 95% of its operational waste from landfill by 2013, Asda had a zero landfill target by the end of 2010 and M&S planned by 2012 to reduce its operational waste by a quarter and construction waste by half.

    No Sainsbury's supermarket sends food waste to landfill. Instead the emphasis is on anaerobic digestion. But they need greater UK capacity before they can do this. Waitrose intends to obtain all its electricity from green sources by expanding its anaerobic digestion programme. Food waste from 115 of its branches is being sent to an anaerobic digestion plant in Bedford. The Bedford plant converts it into renewable energy, which is sold to the national grid.

    This raises an important issue that cuts across many of these great ideas. The environmentally-sound processing systems need to be there, in the right place and with the right capacity before the desired changes can be made.

    Before M&S, for one, could produce more packaging using recycled material it needed to obtain a better quality of recycled plastic. To get this it had to invest £1.3 million in Somerset's waste operations to improve the quality of its recycling facilities, bigger wagons, and a plastic and cardboard kerbside collection with one-quarter of the output being made available to M&S. And you thought they just ran shops.

    New, explicitly ethical entrants to retailing

    fruit and veg marketWhole Foods Market. Whole Food Market now has five stores (all in London), the largest being the former Barkers store in Kensington. 40 are projected, although it has found the going very tough. The US-owned group has 194 stores globally with sales of £2.9 billion.

    Green Baby (www.greenbaby.co.uk)

    Green BabySet up by Canadian mother Jill Barker in the UK, eco-award winning Green Baby provides organic products, washable nappies, wooden toys, toiletries, maternity wear from four London stores and a mail order business. Their Merino knitwear is produced by a Women's Fair Trade cooperative in Uruguay. They use luxurious natural merino fibres sourced via MANOS, who economise on water use and other resources and avoid using harmful chemicals during the kettle dyeing process. Ethical baby products have been a major growth area for retailers.

    Fairtrade

    The Fairtrade system has achieved astonishing success. The Coop, which supported Fairtrade from its inception, stocks a core range of key Fairtrade products such as coffee, tea, sugar, chocolate, bananas and wine. Its own-label chocolate is 100% fair-trade. Sainsbury's has taken over the mantle of being the biggest Fairtrade retailer, both own label as another brand.

    Carrefour also has impressive Fairtrade credentials, being the largest Fairtrade (le commerce équitable) retailer in France.

    Over 4,500 products have been licensed to carry the FAIRTRADE Mark in the UK and according to the Fairtrade Foundation sales reached £1.17 billion in 2010, a 40 percent increase on the previous year. By the end of 2010, the number of producer organisations selling to the UK was 560 from 54 different countries. The UK is the largest Fairtrade country, responsible for more than 50% of Fairtrade globally.

    Other Ethical labels

    • FSC (Forest Stewardship Council)
      Major retailers have switched to sustainable wood, a prohibition on endangered species, discontinuing teak, etc.
    • MSC (Marine Stewardship Council)
      Slowly major retailers are attempting to shift their fish stocks to sustainable sources, ensuring that the fish are caught or reared with minimal impact on stocks, eco-systems, and the wider environment. The biggest issues seem to be with salmon and cod, using line-caught methods.
    • Freedom Food
      Agreed standards for UK-sourced food involving humane treatment for animals. There are problems here with pork sourced from the Netherland and Poland apparently given a UK label because it is sourced here.
    • Red Tractor Label
      Assured food standards umbrella for UK product, covering 6 different programme areas and 6 related schemes responsible for £10 bn sales.

    Organic standards for rearing pork actually provide far more space for pigs than Red Tractor or Freedom Food

    You Can't Always Win

    Product non-availability. Even where retailers want to stock more environmentally suitable products these are not always available. In electrics has have been a lot of progress with energy efficient washing machines, fridges and cars but little progress on hairdryers, TVs and computers.

    The green claims. Criticisms that much supermarket food makes you fat has led most chains to produce low-calorie lines or low-fat lines, although these have often been criticised by nutritionists, 'Which?' and others, for having large amounts of salt and often being little better than normal processed foodstuffs.

    Which? Has also attacked the bio 'green' claims of many of the environmentally-friendly detergents and cleaners arguing that many of them are little better than standard products. Retailers do not have a stance on this. They would prefer a small number of universally-accepted standards to be used when sourcing and describing merchandise.

    Plastic Carrier Bags. Many people use a retailer's position on plastic bags as a measure of its overall greenness. Ireland claims to have reduced plastic bag use from 27 per person per month in 2002 to 2 in 2009 by charging 15¢ for each bag, but this figure is based on bag tax revenues. In the UK, retailer-issued bag use has fallen from 11 per person per month in 2002 to 7.2 in 2009 and then 7.7 in 2010. The WRAP target of a 50% reduction in single-use carrier between 2006 and Spring 2009 was just missed (a 48% reduction).

    WRAP found that retailers used 6.8 million bags in 2010 compared to 10.9 in 2006 (-37%). The trend towards thin gauge bags meant that the total weight of bags provided was 57,900 Tonnes in 2010 compared with 95,000 Tonnes in 2006. Between 2008-09 and 2010 there were reductions in the bags distributed but the reductions were even higher in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.

    Plastic bags are a cost and retailers would gladly avoid that cost if customers brought their own. Some research has shown that the HDPE bags (high density polythene) may be up to 500 times less damaging than cotton or linen bags often used as a substitute. Retailers fear that not issuing bags will inconvenience customers, reduce trade, and increase breakages and, whilst they try to reduce bag use, it should be left to customers to make their own decisions. If you break a bottle of wine because you drop it on the way out of the shop, the cost is far greater than a plastic bag and store staff have to clear it up. But it is true that many people get worked up about plastic bags and the last government threatened legal changes to force retailers to cut bag use.

    The Courtauld commitment signed by most food retailers commits them to reducing waste, packaging, household waste and carbon impact of packaging. Phase I (four years to 2010) saved 1.2 million Tonnes of food and packaging worth £1.8 bn.

    Organics. Sales of organic food were growing at 30% pa in the early 2000s. As we have seen sales have been falling since 2008, but it still accounts for around £1.7 bn of sales, a fall of 5.9% compared to the previous year. The scale of organic farming is increasing (by 2010 there were 680,000 hectares compared to 500,000 hectares in 2006), but the land in conversion to organic has fallen from 158,000 Ha in 2007 to 51,000 Ha in 2010. The number of organic producers (and many are small) has fallen from 7,896 in 2008 to 7,567 in 2010. There can be little growth in this sector over the next few years because there is little land becoming organic to replace the farms that cease to be organic.

    The same pattern can be seen in livestock. Organic poultry has fallen from 4.5 million birds in 2006 to 4 million in 2010 and there are only 47,000 organic pigs compared to 71,000 in 2010. Scotland has been particularly affected: there were 429,000 ha in organic use in the early 2000s but now there is only 189,000.

    But the sector has seen a small rise in box schemes (a producer or retailer delivers a changing box of vegetables [depending upon availability]) directly to customers. These now have sales of £156 million. There have also been continued increases in cattle reared organically.

    Why the fall in organics?

    • Organics are more expensive and less likely to be on promotion. People still buy organic food but they may do so less frequently.
    • A significant number of shoppers have switched from organic to Fairtrade. They can stick tick their personal 'ethical' box and feel they are doing something for poor overseas farmers.
    • The Food Standards Agency and other commentators have stated that there were no observable nutritional differences between organic food and non-organic, though an article in the RSS's journal showed that this was not true for organic milk (it convinced me anyway).
    • There have also been some frauds with 'organic' eggs, pies and meat being found to be ordinary foodstuffs not produced in accordance with the Soil Association requirements. This does nothing to help consumer confidence. The problems are mainly in the restaurant and hotel sector, but they affect people's perceptions.
    • There is no agreed organic label (apart from the Soil Association) whilst supporters of organic food condemn the new EU organics label which allows organics to contain up to 0.9% GM.
    • Organic can be seen as too abstract and goody-goody for hard-pressed consumers.

    Only 9% of shoppers look for organic products (according to MMR Research Worldwide) whilst Organics as a brand is thought to be weak, difficult to understand and having brand values that are more about being difficult than things they associate with. MMR Research showed that consumers were five times more likely to relate to terms such as 'healthy', 'natural', 'free from artificial colours, flavours and preservatives' than to the word 'organic'. Shoppers were looking for evidence of natural food that had not been tampered with, 43% looked for healthy and low fat evidence, 30% for low sugar, and 34% for low salt.

    The argument is that organics should change their name and reposition themselves as traditional values (think Hovis), healthy, free from chemicals, natural etc.

    It's obviously not easy, being green.

    Can we produce it?

    The market for organics and 'real food' (or slow food) is generated in the UK by (a) ethics and interest, (b) a rapidly growing market, and (c) premium prices for the products. However the rapid growth in demand for organic food and real food is creating real problems:

    • True organic food cannot be switched on like a tap. It takes some years of organic cultivation before a farm can sell its stuff as 'organic'
    • Organic and 'real food' producers face the danger than agribusiness may turn its attention their way eliminating or slicing their profit margins.
    • They fear that the desire of multiples to (a) show how environmentally-conscious they are, and (b) sell organics and real food cheaply may kill off the specialist shops, farm shops, etc that are their main markets at present.
    • International increases in food input prices, accentuated by the rush towards biodiesel (which uses what otherwise would be food), may make life hard for organic and real food producers because they may not be able to pass on the price increases fully.
    • The increased supply of organic and local produce has reduced the premium price that producers receive. This naturally endangers these producers.

    Chippindale Foods, Yorkshire-based supplier and intermediary, offer full egg traceability via their site wheresyoursfrom. You click the code from the egg into their website and it shows you when and where the egg was produced.

    Chippindale Foods