The great organic swindle
If you’re anything like me, then you’re occasionally susceptible to wild fits of buying stuff that has eco-certification logos all over it.
Fair Trade, carbon neutral, Flipper-friendly - essentially if it’s round, has an acronym, and is preferably some shade of green, then I’ll buy the item it’s endorsing. (Pictures of stupidly smiling animals on the packet don’t hurt, either.)
“Organic” is one such trend I’ve recently been fixated on. It’s a term with an underlying philosophy - products made naturally without the use of modern synthetic inputs - that has been around for quite some time now. The concept has been around since the beginning of time.
As a movement, however, organic farming has only existed for 70 years; arising in response to the 20th century industrialization of agriculture that brought with it some pretty gross chemicals - like Dursban and DDT, both linked to terrible effects on the environment and human health.
But organic has started to mean something else in recent years: mass corporate profit.
In Australia, the sector has grown from a paltry $128 million in retails sales in 2004 to almost $1 billion in 2010. A third of that sum appeared in the last two years, with 60 per cent coming from supermarkets. Two thirds of Aussies contribute to these figures.
It’s safe to say that overpaid marketing managers everywhere are onto this trend. Global brands - from Heinz to Nike - routinely capitalize on organic’s schtick, with everything from chemical-free pumpkin to organic cotton fabric in their products.
Now the antithesis of organic - a fast food chain - is on the bandwagon, with Hungry Jack’s launching what it says is the first mainstream burger made with 100% certified organic beef.
According to HJ’s campaign, the cow that ends up in your mouth first lives some Buddha-like existence; apparently so free to roam that its affably blokey farmer is stupid enough to lose it. This decision “makes it better”.
What “better” is when we’re talking about organic isn’t actually that clear though.
There are, of course, countless people who’ll be quick to tell you there’s nothing “better” about organic, period - that’s there no proof about the health benefits; that the environment doesn’t mind the occasional dousing of synthetic chemicals; that the science behind it is all total hippie mumbo-jumbo.
I’m not one of those people. The science is persuasive and the underlying philosophy is quite lovely - cute and cuddly, even.
It’s those bloody soy latte drinking wankers that buy into organic-washing corporations that are the problem. Like, err… me.
Granted, we’re all a bit confused as to what organic actually means, as argued in a recent study of the sector, ‘Misreading between the lines’. The loose guidelines don’t help, with seven disparate Aussie accreditors leaving all sorts of products open to different types of certification (for a fee, of course).
Ask yourself: does organic mean ‘healthy’, ‘animal friendly’, or maybe just really hipster cool if accessorised with Low GI and Gluten free?
Not many of us know. Except evidently corporations, like Hungry Jack’s, which seems to be using the blanket term to distance itself from that recent “oops!” consumer watchdog health fiasco.
“I’m not saying they’re manipulating the term, but it’s interesting that fast food companies have taken organic to make themselves seem healthy or good tasting,” says Joanna Henryks, one of Misleading’s authors and an organic expert.
She says that us consumers then fill the gaps “with the shortcuts in our brains”, i.e. non-existent Buddha cow + organic cert + ‘better’ = no more heart attacks.
Never mind that other ethos - the ones advocated by all seven certifiers - may be missing from the overall package. Like natural ingredients (preservative-laden sauces), sustainability (excess packaging), or fair wages (pimply teenage staff).
OK, so targeting HJs is shooting barreled fish - but there are countless other companies winning us over with exactly the same marketing.
In a very different sector, Zara & H&M are cashing in on eco-chic trends with sideline collections. Both fashion powers are now in the top 10 list of organic cotton buyers globally.
Meanwhile – as argued by UK fashion sustainability advocate, Lucy Siegle - the rest of these brand’s components are distinctly un-organic: mass-produced, laden with carbon miles, and sewed by some poor overworked sod in India.
So what’s the solution for us gullible do-gooders?
If we really want to take organic’s philosophy on board - and I still do - then maybe we should strip the product back to basics (pardon the irony). We can shop locally at farmer’s markets. We can buy small brands. We can buy big brands, but ones that exemplify organic ethos throughout the entire company structure.
We could even - God forbid – grow our own backyard produce without the use of nasty chemicals, corporations, or ridiculous advertising campaigns.
Failing that, maybe we could just wait for the fast food chains to get wind of the slow food movement. Then shit may really start to get interesting.
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