Creating sustainability : the social construction of the market for organic products

M. Miele

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


<p>Creating Sustainability: The Social Construction of the Market for Organic Products</p><p><strong>Chapter N. 1:</strong> Reflections on globalisation</p><p>This chapter starts with some reflection on the concept of globalisation and reviews the literature in sociology of agriculture and food and rural sociology that deals with this issue. Two contrasting bodies of literature are confronted: the political economy studies that share a macroscopic level of analysis and focus attention on food production and food industries. These underline the growing homogenisation of food provision brought about by the new possibilities offered by trade liberalisation processes to TNCs . The second body of literature, that can be categorised as studies about the 'new ruralities', represents a different line of interpretation of the globalisation phenomenon. Attention is still focused on production, but the aspects that are investigated are the "universal" processes of endogenisation and selection of scientific and technological knowledge reached by the actors involved in the production processes. The latter studies show that new forms of production, which are linked to new patterns of consumption based upon the symbolic nature of food, health concerns and the desire to promote conservation of the natural environment, lead to the emergence of many differentiated rural spaces. In short, this literature suggests that rural change is driven by a highly 'cultured' set of consumption aspirations.</p><p>The second section of the chapter investigates how these new hapter presents a brief analysis of the current approaches in sociology of consumption and the insights that they provide in understanding the evolution of food consumption in Europe and the rise for the market of organic products.</p><p>Three perspectives are here discussed:</p><ul><li>The first one is the body of literature that shares a structuralist approach. Among these studies particularly relevant are the contributions of the anthropological studies of M. Douglas, (1979) that in the late 1970s and the 1980s stressed the role of <em>commodities as communicators</em> . However, Douglas's structuralist approach has tended to be overshadowed by work in the Western Marxian tradition, especially that of Bourdieu (1984). In his sociological analysis of <em>taste</em> and <em>manners</em> , attention is focused on the ways in which people use consumer goods to create social ties or, alternatively, social distinctions. Bourdieu's thesis in "Distinction" is that styles of life are a primary means of social classification because they express distinction between classes (and Bourdieu is precisely using food and table manner as an example). However, a second body of literature stresses that social contrasts in food consumption have diminished during the later twentieth centuries. This second approach (Social network approach), developed by Mennel <em>et al.</em> (1992), (Harris, 1986), Warde (1990, 1992, 1997, 1999), and others in the 1990s, concentrates attention on collective consumption practices and shows how patterns of sociability limit the operation of individual choice and account for much apparent inconsistency between consumer beliefs and consumer behaviour (Warde 1999). They account also for the substantial inertia in consumer practices.</li><li>The third approach, developed in the debate on the post-modern condition, builds upon general theories of consumption in cultural studies developed by M. Featherstone (1991) and by R. Shields (1992). It concentrates attention on the processes of " <em>individualisation"</em> as oppose to " <em>individualism</em> " and the " <em>new tribalism</em> " (Maffesoli, 1988) achieved through patterns of consumption. This last body of literature is inscribed in the reflexivity tradition of sociology (Giddens 1991, Beck 1994, Baumann 1998) and, while generally adopting a more individualist approach, it centres on the question of continuous critical re-evaluation of traditional practices which simultaneously loosen the hold of established patterns of sociability (sources of identity, sense of belonging) and opens the perspective for new collective practices through the politicisation of everyday life. These studies point to a phenomenon that Chaney (1996) calls "Lifestyle politics". By lifestyle politics this author, and others like Tester and Franklin point to the new social dimension of food consumption and to the new "demand for citizenship rights" expressed through consumption related activities: consumer boycott and consumer's ideologically oriented choice of commodities (e.g. fair trade and animal friendly produced products). These phenomena are becoming more evident in the food sector.</li><li>Changes in collective consumer practices, autonomous from the varied and even conflicting strategies of agrifood leading players, can therefore be envisaged.</li></ul><p>All these approaches provide insights in understanding the context and the dynamics of the development of the market for organic products in Europe.</p><p><strong>Chapter N.3:</strong> The growth of the market for organic products.</p><p>This chapter presents an overview of the development of the market for organically produced foods in Europe. The chapter focuses on the 1990s and illustrates two main features of this development. The first is the <em>polarisation</em> of demand of organic products in the Northern European countries and the <em>concentration</em> of production in marginal areas in the Southern European countries. This process has been strongly affected by the enforcement of the EU Regulation 2078/92 that provided specific financial support for organic agriculture and facilitated the conversion to organic farming of part of the existing conventional farms.</p><p>The second aspect considered is the <em>sophistication</em> of consumer demand for organic products. A growing number of consumers have become interested in organic products almost in all EU countries since the 1980s, health concerns and growing anxiety about food safety being the common feature of such an increasing demand. Environmental concerns, that had represented a strong motivation for the first élite of consumers (especially in Germany), did not affect significantly the new consumers' preferences or choices. Therefore more conventional quality characteristics, like aesthetic, size, and especially convenience and variety (which are intrinsically less environmentally friendly but compatible with a 'health' informed choices have become the new requirements of the conventional retailing chains in order to catch the new and growing segment of the market. The socio-demographic characteristics of the new consumers of organics (high level of formal education and medium/high disposable income) represented a further incentive for the conventional retailing chains to offer organic products and to develop private policies for them (private 'organic.')</p><p><strong>Chapter N. 4:</strong> Germany: the problems of a pioneer</p><p>The early start of organic farming in Germany (the early 1920s) and the higher number of consumers concerned about environmental problems, compared to the other EU countries in the 1970s and 1980s, characterise the production context as more ideologically oriented than in the other EU countries. The majority of EU countries developed an organic movement later, especially in the South of Europe but also in the Netherlands, and many producers joined the movement in the 1990s attracted by the financial incentives of the EU. A sign of this can be seen in the reluctance that organic producers showed in selling organically produced products in conventional distribution chains (supermarkets) and their preference for the dedicated shops. Also the 'dedicated distribution channels for organic' (farm shops, specialised shops, consumers clubs, box schemes) developed first in Germany in the 1970s and early 1980s, and these alternative retailing outlets were promoting an alternative and quite radical ideology of consumption. Food should be simple, unrefined and unprocessed, wholesome, environmentally and animal friendly produced, possibly unpacked, with no preservatives, no additives etc. Therefore, for the first organic shopkeepers, availability of a large selection of fresh products (e.g. fresh fruit and vegetables) was considered environmentally dangerous, the presentation of the products was largely unimportant and conventional quality attributes like aesthetics and size of the products were perceived as superfluous. Convenience foods were considered suspicious if not deliberately against an ethics of consumption informed to minimise energy use. Meat and animal products were absent from the shelf or presented in very limited quantities for the high percentage of vegetarians among the early consumers. During the 1980s and the 1990s the demand for organically produced foods in Germany has grown more than in the other EU countries but the 'alternative circuits' of producers and retailers were neither prepared to deliver a higher quantity nor to meet a more 'sophisticated' demand for 'quality'. The new consumers were less ideologically oriented, environmental concern was less relevant and health concerns became the first motivation for buying organic. The new consumers of organic started to look for conventional quality characteristics like aesthetics, variety, size, convenience etc... The higher consumption of organic in Germany created the condition for higher import of products: 50% of the total organic food consumed in Germany is imported from other EU countries and from New Zealand, Australia and USA.</p><p><strong>Chapter N. 5:</strong> The Netherlands: exporting organics</p><p>Chapter 5 considers the development of organic agriculture in the Netherlands over the last 20 years. In the first part of the chapter consumption trends, food industries, import-export operators and retailing companies' attitudes and policies towards organically produced products are described. In the second part a series of case studies is presented in order to show the strategies adopted by farms in keeping up with the development of the market and the requirements of the food industries and retailing companies.</p><p>The analysis of the food companies and public institutions' attitudes towards organic agriculture shows that there is a common vision of the future market for organic products as mostly driven by export towards other European countries (Germany, UK and Scandinavian countries). This prevalent vision among the actors in the organic agribusiness legitimises and makes almost hegemonic the ideas that development of organic production should be reached through the <em>professionalisation</em> of the agricultural practices, the <em>enlargement of scale</em> of production and the strengthening of <em>vertical integration</em> between the actors in the food chain. This process has been facilitated by the support of the public institutions that stimulate processes of vertical integration among producers and food industries and increase domestic consumption by promoting the entrance of organic products in the supermarket chains.</p><p>The Dutch case illustrates that both the institutional environment and agribusiness have been very successful in catching a rising market in Europe and 70% of Dutch organic production goes to export. Organic production became largely disconnected from early ideas and ideals of a re-localisation of food production, and from a rural development model that would entail the survival of small-scale farms, typical food and craft activities linked to agricultural production, as the case study of the coop 'Nautilus' illustrates. Nevertheless, given the still favourable context of the growing demand for organic products, some experiences of small-scale, typical production (as illustrated in the case study 'Wadden') have shown a remarkable success even in an 'institutional environment' that does not provide specific incentives for this type of development.</p><p><strong>Chapter N. 6:</strong> Tuscany: the co-construction of a local market for organic</p><p>This chapter illustrates the development of organic agriculture in Italy and presents a specific regional case (Tuscany). The case of Italy, the leading country in the EU as far as total number of farms and farmland is concerned, is illustrated. This case is relevant in the discussion of the evolution of organic farming in the EU not only for the rapid growth of this sector, but also because the Italian context is providing a mirror of the EU context. In fact in Italy as well as in the EU as a whole, there is a strong polarisation of organic production in the Southern regions and domestic consumption concentrates in the Northern and Central regions. Moreover, in Italy there is a great regional unevenness in the development of the distribution channels and in the role that organic agriculture plays in promoting rural development processes. In the Northern regions there is a higher level of vertical integration through the organic supply chain, and the distribution channels are similar to the ones in Northern EU countries. In the Southern regions and in the Islands there is production for consumption in the North of Italy or export. In the Central regions organic farming is developing in a specific way which is more relevant as a rural development activity than a new segment of the agribusiness. A more specific discussion on this issue will be presented by analysing the case study of Tuscany.</p><p>Firstly will be illustrated the development of organic farming in the region and the relevance of the alternative circuits of commercialisation, e.g. the short chains between producers and consumers of the farm shops, farmers markets, dedicated shops. The great increase in the number of farms and farmland in the second half of the 1990s increasingly created problems for the commercialisation of the organic products through the existing 'alternative channels' and many producers faced a drop in prices when they started to sell their products through conventional channels. The organic farmers organisation (CTPB) tried to mobilise the local institutions for activating specific policies aimed at promoting local production. The regional government and other local institutions, both public and private, got enrolled in the discourse of the organic farmer association (CTPB). The regional government conceived organic agriculture as one of the main features of rural development aimed at a re-localisation of food production, the survival of small-scale farms, typical food and craft activities linked to agricultural production. The chapter addresses the modalities in which this 'rural development model' has been implemented by the <em>synergetic</em> actions of public institutions, farmers organisations, environmental movements and private enterprises.</p><p><strong>Chapter n. 7:</strong> Conclusion</p><p>This chapter presents three points that have emerged from the analysis of the case studies presented in the previous chapters. The first point is that the growth of the demand for organic products can lead to very different situations; therefore abstract conceptualisations of the 'market' as a co-ordinating mechanism do not help in understanding the divergent paths of development that seems to characterise many countries in Europe. The second point is that the same EU policy aimed at promoting the development of organic farming can bring about divergent effects when it is applied in different contexts. And the third point is that in order to promote more environmentally sustainable agricultural practices and robust food systems the issue of localisation of both production and consumption needs to be addressed.</p><p>In sum, organics is an example of the contemporary fragmentation of the food sector as new consumer trends interrelate with new systems of production, processing and retailing. The diverse food chains that emerge in different countries suggest that a co-ordinating role for policy is needed so that the various elements that comprise a successful organics sector can be effectively harmonised. The chapter ends underlining that, if policy is to play this role, then it will need to find a way of working with rather than against the complexity that is so evident in the organic sector.</p>
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • van der Ploeg, Jandouwe, Promotor
Award date9 Feb 2001
Place of PublicationS.l.
Print ISBNs9789058083678
Publication statusPublished - 2001


  • organic foods
  • food products
  • agricultural products
  • markets
  • marketing
  • marketing channels
  • germany
  • netherlands
  • italy
  • globalization
  • organic farming

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