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The rise of ‘food citizens’

Clare McDermott, business development director for Soil Association Certification, explains how choosing organic converts desire for change into action
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
The rise of 'food citizens'

This article first appeared in our Consumer Revolution issue of My Green Pod Magazine, released on 19 Dec 2019. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

There is a revolution happening in the world of food and drink.

It might not be a rapid transformation, but it is reshaping the way that we all think about what and how we buy.

This change in shopping habits won’t be news to many, but our increasing awareness of the damage being done to the planet by our consumption habits, is – officially – shaping the way we shop.

Planet-centric choices

More and more of us want to reduce the impact we have on the environment, and for many that starts with our weekly shop. The growing rejection of unnecessary plastic packaging, spurred on by documentaries like Blue Planet II, is testament to the knowledge that we can – and must – all make a difference in some small way.

In the summer, Soil Association Certification conducted research to gain a better insight into what drives us to make decisions when food shopping. We wanted to know how – and if – those drivers are changing, and what organisations like the Soil Association should be doing to harness the changes in consumer behaviour. We talked to a cross section of shoppers but focused on those who weren’t already buying much or any organic.

The findings of the research confirmed what we’ve long suspected: choices are changing from individual-centric to more planet-centric. People are now making decisions based on the impact they might have on the planet – think environment, wildlife, waste – rather than simply what the product can do for them as an individual.

Some individual factors remain important; health, for example, still has a major influence on our choices and with busy lives, convenience plays a huge role. But planet-centric choices, like biodiversity, are having an increasing impact. This is still early days; they are emerging trends – albeit fast-growing ones.

Citizenship and consumption

This changing landscape chimes with another area of work that is gaining traction across a broad spectrum of organisations: the idea of citizenship. Increasingly, people are no longer just passive consumers, simply buying what is put in front of them. Instead, we’re increasingly looking to engage with a cause and to feel like we are part of – and can contribute to – a wider movement that is making change in the world.

To put it plainly, many of the businesses succeeding today are moving their customers away from buying a product and towards buying into a product.

For organic, this idea of food citizenship is really exciting, and not a new one. As more people seek to be more involved in where their food comes from and part of something bigger that shapes the way we eat and farm, the organic movement is perfectly placed to show more sustainable ways of producing food and drink, and to offer ways for people to support the cause beyond simply buying organic.

Organic social enterprises

We can already see the citizenship mindset at work. The rapid rise in organic veg box schemes and independent retailers points to the fact that as ‘food citizens’ we want to support local, sustainable production and more ethical businesses.

Many independent retailers, often seen as the traditional homes of organic produce, go above and beyond to foster the citizenship spirit, acting as community hubs or even social enterprises.

Locavore is one such organic social enterprise; its aim is to build a more sustainable local food system – one that is better for our local economy, the environment and our communities – and is not just a shop that sells affordable organic items.

It has developed a market garden, established a veg box scheme and engages local people on issues around food, where it comes from and the fairness and sustainability of mainstream supply chains in one of the most deprived areas of Glasgow. It is a golden example of how to involve people as citizens, not just treat them as consumers.

Being part of something bigger

The challenge now for everyone involved in the organic movement, from retailers to producers, is to consistently and clearly reinforce the link between concerns about our impact on the planet, a desire to be part of something bigger and the benefits for people and planet that organic provides.

Now is a critical time to convert people’s desire for change into action, and when shoppers hear of all the benefits that organic offers to the planet and wildlife, organic should become a no-brainer.

By making the intangible tangible and showing people how by supporting organic they are part of something bigger, we are well placed to create a sustainable farming future for us all to enjoy.

Click here to discover how you can save the planet from the ground up with Soil Association.

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