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In 1997, The Hartman Group was in its second year of examining consumer perceptions of food in relation to "earth sustainability" in its Food and the Environment reports and noted "Crises experienced across the agricultural spectrum in the 1980s have generated concern about keeping the land fertile and water pure as well as ensuring economic prosperity and security for everyone involved in farm production." Food and the Environment (Phase II) went on to report that "environmentally sensitive" consumers were especially concerned about water-related issues and pesticides in relation to agricultural practices, all of which laddered up to what was clearly an emerging market for products grown to organic standards.

Fast-forward to today's food market, where organics, according to the Organic Trade Association, are now a $52 billion market, and we see ongoing demand for products that are viewed as premium and yet more accessible in terms of lower prices. And yet, for some time, our long-running organic studies have been detecting a broadening of thinking about sustainable agriculture that looks for assurances in farming and production cues that go beyond organic. The rumblings of progressive, sustainability-minded, organic consumers (which include ideas that center on biodynamic farming and regenerative agriculture) are also being met from the industry side with a push toward disruptive agriculture and explorations of becoming "carbon positive" — all in an effort to combat growing recognition of the effects of conventional agricultural practices on climate change, water resources and biodiversity.

As hinted at in the late 1990s, Hartman Group research continues to find that for progressive organic and sustainability-minded consumers, under the related rubrics of purchasing organics and living more sustainably, the topics of responsible farming and land management and their linkages to regenerative agriculture are gaining traction. Specifically, products sourced with ingredients that restore rather than deplete soil health are on the rise as a distinction of interest among the most engaged consumers. One example: “grass-fed,” once a progressive term, has become a mainstream buzzword to attract consumers seeking to avoid feedlot dairy and beef for personal wellness, animal welfare and sustainability concerns.

In general, regenerative agriculture is a growing movement in which farming practices are used to restore soil degraded by planting and harvesting crops. Related to grass-fed beef, one way to regenerate the topsoil is to graze cattle or bison on land used for growing crops, allowing their manure and left-behind forage to act as natural fertilizers, and plant crops (such as drought-tolerant sorghum) that use less water than conventional crops.

Major media outlets have been covering the rise in cultural interest in regenerative agriculture, documenting increasing activity among Big Food corporations that say they're investing in environmentally friendly practices, such as "rebuilding biodiversity” and “eliminating deforestation." Consumers are certainly interested in such efforts. Our Organic & natural 2018 report found that the most active "Core" organic consumers (who make up 24% of the current 85% of consumers who buy organics) are increasingly seeing "ideal agriculture" as becoming less about an absence of chemicals and more about the cultivation of healthy soils and ecosystems. For these consumers, organic no longer represents the highest ideal for how their food is produced. For them, everything that most mainstream consumers are trying to avoid when buying organics (chemicals/pesticides/GMOs, etc.) are shortsighted, band-aid solutions for an agricultural system that simply is no longer working properly, the effects of which manifest in the quality of our food. As such, food that attempts to address these issues goes beyond organic. Consequently, alternative farming movements like biodynamic farming, regenerative organics, transitional farming, vertical farming and hydroponics are all receiving attention, especially from progressive consumers.

In keeping with our long-term efforts to better understand where consumers are headed in terms of their perceptions of a changing organic market, our new Organic & Beyond 2020 study seeks to answer questions like:

  • The meaning of organic and natural and shifting consumer priorities around natural and organic foods, whether they involve farming, production or processing
  • Consumer perceptions of how food is grown, produced, marketed and sold
  • Properties associated with the words “organic” and “natural” in the minds of consumers
  • Consumer distinctions between organic, natural, non-GMO and other related terms
  • Organic and natural usage, motivations and barriers to purchasing, including value perceptions
  • Beyond organic — what’s next in the natural foods movement
  • The cultural context surrounding consumer choices in foods and beverages today and why consumers continue to value and choose organic and natural products
  • Consumer priorities and preference for organic within specific food and beverage categories amidst a constellation of other quality cues
  • What cultural trends are on the horizon and what companies can expect in terms of consumer thinking on organic and natural in the mid to long term

Organic & Beyond 2020:

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