In a study conducted by The Shelton Group, it seems American consumers have confused “natural” as a better indicator of an eco-friendly product than “organic.”
While the Great Recession has slowed the adoption of “green” and organics, shoppers remain interested in reducing the environmental impact of their choices, though scepticism is increasing about marketing hooey in the form of “greenwashing.” Shelton Group asked 1,006 US consumers how they know if a product is green, and the top response was “don’t know/not sure” (22%) followed by “says so on the package/label” (20%). Despite well-defined certification standards, organic products have failed to win consumers’ trust: 31% said “100 percent natural” is the most desirable eco-friendly product label claim, compared to 14% picking “100 percent organic.”
Despite strict regulations, shoppers think of the organic category as both more unregulated and, of course, more expensive. “Natural” is virtually meaningless since there are no standards or government regulations for its use on products. “Natural” has soared in popularity among marketers, and is the leading label claim on new launches according to research by Mintel. Globally 23% of all new products last year carried the “natural” claim. Dean Foods’ Horizon brand, America’s largest organic milk brand, is launching a “natural” (but not organic) yogurt aimed at toddlers, and single-serve milk targeted toward children. The dairy products are produced conventionally, though the company is insisting they “naturally produced without added growth hormones, artificial colors, flavors or preservatives and no high fructose corn syrup.”
Unlike with organics, the cows can be fed with foodstuffs treated with pesticides, herbicides and other artificial additives. The problems of organic integrity may be partially at fault for the label’s lack of trust from consumers, along with a healthy mistrust of Washington bureaucrats. Organics regulations have been relaxed for some products, partly as demand has pushed the category to over $24bn in annual sales with major players like Kraft and Coke investing in or buying up organic brands. For example, grated organic cheese can contain wood starch to prevent clumping, and organic beer can be made from non-organic hops.
Under the original organics law in 2002, 5% a USDA-certified organic product could be non-organic provided it was approved by the National Organic Standards Board. The original list had 77 substances and has since grown to 245. Manufacturers have to appeal the inclusion every five years by explaining why an organic alternative is not possible or practical. In addition, the law’s mandate for annual pesticide testing was left optional. One problem with enforcing organics standards is that major food companies have taken control-of or purchased outright most small, independent organic companies.