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Shoppers Value Organic Attributes, Lack Familiarity with the Label

From supply chain failures during the global pandemic to the UN Food Systems Summit, food systems have been in the spotlight for the past two years. While this focus on food systems is welcome, current events also demonstrate how critical it is that institutions work together to ensure that our food systems are working for all people, for animals, and for the planet. Unfortunately, public confidence in these institutions is shaky and degrading.

This decline in institutional trust is clearly seen in the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer that illustrates low levels of trust in all institutions. However, the current report highlights the emergence of business as not only the most trusted institution, but also the only institution that is seen as both competent and ethical. This represents both a real opportunity for business and brands to lead and connect with their consumers, and a huge responsibility for business to reflect consumers’ values and to be a source of credible, useful information.

Although consumers trust business more than other institutions, their expectations of business are also growing. Increasingly, consumers demand that businesses and brands reflect their values: 86% of those surveyed expected brands to take action on issues beyond their core business.

Consumers know that companies make hundreds of important decisions about how natural resources are used, how people and animals are treated, and much waste is generated before a product reaches the consumer. They want to know that brands have carefully considered each of those decisions and made choices that reflect their values. For a process-based standard like organic certification, this consumer desire for businesses to integrate purpose and societal impact into their processes and culture is particularly interesting.

It is in this context that the Organic Trade Association commissioned a study from Edelman Data and Intelligence (DxI) to understand how the broader Trust Barometer findings apply to Organic and specifically examine consumer trust and understanding of the National Organic Program (NOP). We surveyed 7,500 individuals from six markets (U.S., UAE, Japan, Germany, France and UK) to identify how individuals perceive and relate to organic, their expectations of the organic industry, and potential threats and opportunities to build consumer trust.

Findings show that while there is general alignment between consumers’ priorities and their impressions of organic products, many consumers are not familiar with the specific requirements behind the USDA Organic seal, and may not understand the certification and inspection process that underpins the organic label.

Organic Trust Barometer

The things people say they care about coincide with many of the elements of the organic standards.

When participants are asked about their key concerns in the food and beverage industry, many of their top concerns are aligned with the requirements of NOP. For example, more than 70% of respondents were at least somewhat concerned about the use of chemicals and GMOs in farming. They also expressed significant concerns about the treatment of agricultural labor and animal welfare.

More than 60% of those surveyed believe organic agriculture addresses many of these concerns, with majorities indicating that they believe organic products are healthier, have fewer pesticides and fewer GMOs than conventional products. They also believe organic products support small farms and are better for animal welfare.

There is widespread confusion about what it means to be organic.

However, people are not very familiar with organic agriculture or NOP. Only one in four Americans (25%) say they are very familiar with NOP, and most are not sure what is and is not part of the NOP standards. For example, 42% of Americans do not know NOP requires crops to be grown with organic seed (and 16% do not think it is part of the standard at all).

Consumers are using labels to make purchases—even when they are not verified in any way.

The lack of understanding of NOP is allowing opportunities for other labels to become prominent, even if those labels lack clear definitions or verification. When we asked consumers about labels that may compete with the USDA Organic seal, and how likely those labels were to influence purchasing decisions, labels like “all natural” were very influential, as were “raised without antibiotics,” “hormone-free,” and non-GMO.

Trust in Organic is being held back by a lack of familiarity.

These results suggest that while organic is generally seen as positive, that positive feeling is not backed by real familiarity of what organic stands for and why consumers should trust the organic label. When asked whether they trusted the organic seal, more than a quarter of U.S. respondents (28%) were neutral about the seal, and another 5% answered they did not know.

However, we did find a particular group of people who have a high degree of trust in organic. Roughly one in four individuals surveyed (28%) love food, share knowledge about food with others, and are more likely to take concrete actions when they learn information about a food or beverage brand. We call this group the “Food Forwards.” Food Forwards are important not only because they are interested in food themselves, but because they influence others. They report that family and friends seek their advice on food, they share food information on social media and other channels, and they are more likely to support or boycott companies—and encourage others to do the same—based on what they learn about specific brands.

Food Forwards were also twice as likely as the general population to be familiar with organic agriculture, and 79% of Food Forwards said they trusted organic, with 48% of them tending to buy organic products, significantly more than the general population.

The Food Forwards show us that those who know organic, like organic and trust organic. They also suggest that there is an opportunity to move those who are in the neutral or don’t know categories toward trust by demonstrating the value of the Organic seal.

The key question, of course, is how to best connect with and create trust among the neutral or uninformed. Our survey showed that only a quarter of Americans believe there is enough clear, accessible information about organic, and when asked about the best source of that information, respondents did not identify a dominant source that consumers rely on as authoritative about organic. In fact, 24% said their most prevalent source of information was friends or family, and only 11% said they relied on government sources for information on organic.

While this may make it harder to target communications, it also indicates that there are opportunities to explore new avenues for connecting with and educating consumers about organic, including engaging new voices—like the Food Forwards who are eager to share their knowledge—and using a variety of channels, from earned to social media, to spread the word about the value of the Organic seal. Members of the organic community throughout the value chain, from farmers to retailers, have opportunities to examine their relationships and engage more broadly with their stakeholders to deepen stakeholders’ understanding of the fundamentals of organic and build trust.

While expanded outreach on organic is important, it is also important not to lose sight of the content and the relevance of the message. As previously stated, consumer expectations continue to evolve and grow, particularly as they relate to industry’s impact on the environment, workers, and animal welfare. Our survey showed that consumers expect organic standards to evolve along with their expectations, and that the changes in those standards should reflect the latest science.

As consumers learn more about the plight of workers and animals in our supply chains, organic standards, and commitments to protect both workers and animals will need to evolve with the times. And no industry will be immune from measuring and reporting their impact on climate change. Many organic practices are already responsive to these issues, but there is an expectation that organic standards will evolve to include more specific metrics in these areas. An additional challenge for the industry will be communicating not only that individual operations are held accountable on climate, labor, and animal welfare, but how those individual commitments ladder up into larger, overall contributions of the organic industry.

The next 18–24 months could be particularly dynamic for food and agriculture. As we learn to manage COVID and develop our “new normal,” consumer purchasing patterns may shift yet again. Concurrently, the food and agriculture policy landscape is also changing rapidly. The Infrastructure and Build Back Better Bills could provide significant new resources for sustainable agricultural practices, and the next Farm Bill process has already begun. New financial regulations and reporting guidelines on ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) goals will require companies to demonstrate the value and effectiveness of the commitments they have made on environmental and labor. Each of these initiatives provide opportunities for the organic industry to demonstrate how organic can help achieve both personal and policy priorities. Based on the results of our survey, there are also significant opportunities to tell that story to new audiences, and in new ways.

Ambassador Darci Vetter is the former Chief Agricultural Negotiator at the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) and Deputy Under Secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). She is now Senior Advisor, Agriculture, Food and Trade at Edelman Global Advisory.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 Organic Report, you can view the full magazine here.