“Organic” needs a re-brand.

“Organic” needs a re-brand.

“I think everything’s organic — isn’t the definition of organic that it grows?”

“Once you add plastic to a product you’re taking away some of the organic.”

“Aren’t all bananas organic anyway?  They all come off trees.”

“A cereal box can say it’s certified organic, but read the ingredients and you’ll see it still has just as much sugar and all the added preservatives of the non-organic cereal…and it’s way more expensive.”

These are real quotes from real Mainstream Consumers in recent Shelton focus groups clearly exhibiting their confusion about what the term “organic” means.  And, as you can tell, they don’t think they’re confused.  They think they know exactly what they’re talking about.

At best, they think “organic” means the item in question is healthier and nothing’s been added to it.  At worst, they think it’s a deceptive marketing term, invented to charge people like them more money.

And why wouldn’t they misunderstand?  With all due respect, the organic industry has done little to clear it up, issuing definitions that require an insider’s knowledge to comprehend:

Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used. (From the USDA’s National Organic Program website.)

‘Organic’ is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole. (From the Organic Trade Association’s website.)


Webster’s says it in a way that’s probably easiest for a mainstream consumer to understand (though this still isn’t the most straightforward use of the English language):  of, relating to, yielding, or involving the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides.

Webster’s also issues the following definition:  of, relating to, or containing carbon compounds, which supports the first quote I listed in this post…the belief that if it’s grown it’s organic.

Why does this matter? Because consumers tell us they’re more interested than ever before in organic food.  In our most recent Eco Pulse study a quarter of the population said that “organic” was the best thing they could see on a food label. The Thomson Reuters-NPR Health Poll, Organic Food, revealed that 58% of the population prefers eating organic food.

Cost is a big red light on actual purchase.  But misunderstanding the actual meaning of organic is an even bigger show-stopper. If a consumer is staring at the organic carrots side-by-side with the conventional ones, and also staring at a big price difference, she has to justify the extra money in her mind. If a little voice inside her head says, “well, I think maybe it means they’re grown without pesticides, but I’m not really sure…” she has just enough doubt to skip the price premium and buy the regular carrots.

Besides, isn’t everything organic?

About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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