The continuing fall in demand for organic food in the UK is perplexing those in the sector, not least when sales of in another 'ethical' category, Fairtrade, have withstood the downturn and increased rapidly. Consumers buy organic for different reasons and the sector has lacked a true message to try to appeal to the mainstream. A focus on quality, Ben Cooper writes, could be the answer.

Figures published by UK organic certification body the Soil Association this month confirm that the sector is not in the rudest of health.

The Soil Association said sales of organic products fell by 3.7% in 2011 to GBP1.67bn (US$2.64bn), attributing the sluggish performance to a lack of innovation and investment by retailers and insufficient government support.

There are two salient comparisons to make. First, as the Soil Association's Market Report 2012 points out, the organic sector is not faring as well in the UK as it is in other countries. Second, the organic market has slumped in the UK while Fairtrade, an analogous sector in many ways, has continued to grow. 

The former comparison may speak to the Soil Association's contentions around retailer and government support. The latter, however, relates directly to how UK consumers perceive organic and how organic food is marketed. 

The Fairtrade Foundation recently reported a 12% increase in estimated retail sales of Fairtrade products for 2011 to GBP1.32bn in spite of recessionary pressures, suggesting a continued strong commitment by consumers to buy more ethically. The Fairtrade mark has become an easily identifiable way for consumers to act on their desire to make more ethical purchases. 

While it should be noted that Fairtrade's progress in recent years has been bolstered by large brands, such as Cadbury Dairy Milk and Kit Kat, switching to Fairtrade, these brands would not be committing to Fairtrade in such volume if they did not see sufficient consumer recognition and support. Consumers make a simple association between the widely recognised Fairtrade mark and a more ethical product.

Research suggests that in contrast to Fairtrade, consumer motivations behind organic purchases are more complex and varied. 

A survey of a thousand shoppers carried out by Leapfrog Research for Organic UK in September and October 2011, identifies ten key reasons why consumers buy organic. Health factors appeared to be the strongest motivation, with 62% of respondents saying their top reason for buying organic was because the products contained fewer chemicals, 57% saying products were natural and unprocessed and 52% that they were healthier.

While 47% said their top reason was organic was better for the environment, only 33% said organic was more ethical. Some 34% of respondents said organic had higher animal welfare standards, while 29% said they bought organic because it was GM-free. Some 44% said they bought organic because the food tasted better.

So broadly speaking, in the minds of consumers, organic is either a proxy for 'healthy', for 'ethical' or for 'quality'. 

However, each of these proxies carries inherent challenges, while the very fact that consumers may turn to organic for a variety of reasons makes creating a cogent generic marketing proposition far more problematic than it has been for Fairtrade, and may also explain why some organic brand marketers have been missing the mark.

Although the Leapfrog/Organic UK research appears to suggest the health and environmental motivations remain relatively strong, there is no doubt that organic's claims to be healthier suffered in 2009 when the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) published research suggesting organic food offered no particular health advantages. Organic sales fell as a result.

In spite of that evidence, organic will undoubtedly still be regarded by some consumers as better for you  but it is likely that the case for organic as a 'proxy for healthy' is not as strong as it might once have been. Furthermore, many of the perceived health advantages offered by organic foods can be found in conventional foods. 

With regard to organic being a proxy for ethical, it is interesting to note that, in making protestations about their continued commitment to organic, major supermarket chains referred to organic customers as consumers making 'more ethical choices'.

Clearly, some consumers do buy organic for ethical reasons. But the case for organic production being more 'ethical' or more sustainable is a highly nuanced question. The debate currently being conducted over the relative merits of agroecology and sustainable intensification within the academic community, governments and inter-governmental organisations shows that to regard organic as the ethical choice is simplistic.

Certain ethical sensibilities on the part of consumers - for example a preference for higher-welfare meat - can again be met by conventionally reared animals. Organic in some cases when bought in a farmer's market may signify lower food miles, but organic produce in a supermarket may often be out of season and have travelled a long way. Consumers are persuaded to pay the premium for that but there is a carbon premium too. Buying out-of-season organic fruit that might have been shipped by air is hardly indicative of ethical consumerism.

Aside from the wider debate over whether organic production offers a viable way to meet global food needs, is an ethical proposition all that strong in marketing terms? It may carry weight with dyed-in-the-wool organic consumers but they have already made their minds up and hardly need marketing to. 

In bringing in new consumers the ethical case may be rather weak. The arguments are nebulous and the organic sector's sustainability credentials are disputed. It simply doesn't have the ethical clarity of the Fairtrade message which has resonated hugely with consumers, allowing Fairtrade to move into the mainstream and continue growing during the recession. 

In contrast, however, organic's quality and taste credentials appear to have a sharper clarity and resonance with consumers.

Organic has always been more expensive, so there's an expectation of a premium price and, where consumers can afford that and are looking for quality, a readiness to pay a premium. Certainly the comparative success of Waitrose in the organic market during the past year suggests that tying in organic with a strong premium, quality proposition could be the way forward.

Of course, there's a downside too. The Leapfrog/Organic UK research also identified that 91% of consumers who weren't buying organic gave cost as the main reason. And the organic sector ideally wants to be able to serve multiple price brackets. However, the lack of progress in the mainstream over the last few years suggests that focusing primarily on organic as a proxy for quality and taste may provide the best prospects for profitable growth.