By JOAN LOWY
Scripps Howard News Service
June 19, 2005
Several trends have combined to fuel the surge in such consumerism. The price of many green products - from hybrid cars to organic tomatoes - is now competitive with conventional alternatives, and consumers can find more choices of environmentally friendly products in more stores than ever before.
Consumers have also been alarmed by increasing reports of mercury in fish, antibiotics in meat and poultry, and hormone-mimicking chemicals in shampoos and cosmetics.
A recent survey of 2,000 adults by the Natural Marketing Institute found that 88 percent agreed that "it is important for companies to not just be profitable, but to be mindful of their impact on the environment and society." More than 70 percent of those surveyed said that knowing a company is mindful of its impact on the environment and society makes them more likely to buy its products or services.
While there is often a gap between what consumers say they would ideally like to buy and what they actually purchase, it appears that more consumers are spending their cash on green goods.
The biggest growth has been with organic food and beverages.
In the United States, organic products account for only about 2 percent of the food and beverage market. But the conventional food market has been growing 2 percent to 3 percent a year, while sales of organic products have been growing about 20 percent a year for the past several years and are projected to reach $15 billion this year, according to the Organic Trade Association. That's up from about $1 billion in sales in 1990, the association said.
One reason for the organic boom is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture completed its standards for food products that can be labeled "organic" and carry the department's "organic" seal in October 2002. As a result, consumers are more confident that the products they are buying are truly organic, and manufacturers feel that they are competing on a level playing field, food-industry executives said.
"You can now find organic products in most mainstream supermarkets," said Barbara Haumann of the Organic Trade Association. "You can find them in club stores, you can find them in Wal-Mart, you can find them pretty much anywhere. Some mainstream supermarkets are coming out with their own house label for organic products."
Such corporate food giants as Campbell Soup, Pepsi, Unilever, Heinz, ConAgra and General Mills have all introduced organic products in the last two years.
"Organic is becoming more and more mainstream," said Steve DeMuri, senior manager for commercialization and improvement at Campbell. "It's happening very fast."
After Campbell introduced its first organic product, a tomato juice, in 2003, the vegetable-juice market tripled, DeMuri said. The company has since introduced organic salsas, tomato sauces, broths and other juices.
The organic-food market will likely continue to experience double-digit annual growth for the next five to 10 years before leveling off, DeMuri projected. It's possible that by 2020 sales of organic food in the United States could reach $80 billion a year, he said.
"This is not a fad," DeMuri said. "I think the only thing that will limit it is the amount of land available (for organic farming), and I think that will grow, too." Under USDA rules, farmland must be free of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for at least three years before it can be certified for organic agriculture.
The movement is worldwide. There are now nearly 560,000 farms in 108 countries that are certified organic, according to the Foundation Ecology & Agriculture in Germany. The worldwide market for organic food and beverages is estimated at $25 billion.
"Organic has this halo around it," said Gwynne Rogers, a consultant for the marketing institute. It has developed an aura of "coolness or trendiness ... it's even gourmet or upscale in some cases."
The demand is also felt in the food-service industry, especially on college campuses. Yale University, Stanford University, Middlebury College and the University of Wisconsin are some of the institutions that have added organic items to cafeteria menus in response to student demand.
Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine and has been testing products since 1936, recently launched a green-products Web site (www.eco-labels.org/greenconsumers/home.cfm).
"We are not only interested in helping consumers understand how to buy more environmentally sustainable products, but also how to use them in the most sustainable way, which can save them money and save their health in the long run," said Urvashi Rangan, an environmental scientist at Consumers Union.
The marketing institute's annual lifestyles survey, released in February, also found that 22 percent of consumers say they have energy-efficient windows and 31 percent say they have a low-flow showerhead or faucet.
Among other findings: 31 percent of consumers had bought compact fluorescent lightbulbs within the last 12 months, 28 percent had purchased some kind of natural household cleaning product and 20 percent had bought some kind of environmentally friendly lawn-and-garden product.
Between 1999 and 2003, the number of American households buying organic fertilizer nearly tripled, to 11.7 million, according to the National Gardening Association. Like the big food companies, big fertilizer companies have also responded to the growth in demand for organic products. Scott's, the world's largest manufacturer of lawn-and-garden products, recently introduced a line of organic fertilizers.
However, unlike organic food, there is no federal standard for organic fertilizer, leaving each state to set its own. The Association of American Plant Food Control Officials, which represents state regulators, has proposed a model standard for states to adopt if they wish, but that standard has been strongly criticized by the Organic Trade Association as misleading to consumers.
The proposed standard wouldn't prevent manufacturers from labeling fertilizer as "organic" even if it contains ingredients made from petroleum and other chemicals, which is often the case now, said Emily Brown Rosen, a consultant with Organic Research Associates in Titusville, N.J.
"Consumers don't know if (organic fertilizer) is labeled correctly or not correctly unless they are real familiar with the rules," Rosen said.
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