Social and Environmental Attributes of Food Products in an Emerging Mass Market : Challenges of Signaling and Consumer Perception, With European Illustrations
This paper focuses on the environmental and ethical attributes of food products and their production processes. These two aspects have been recently recognized and are becoming increasingly important, in terms of signaling and of consumer perception. There are two thematic domains: environmental and social. Within each domain there are two movements. Hence the paper first presents the four movements that have brought to the fore new aspects of food product quality, to wit: (1) aspects of environmental ethics (organic agriculture and integrated agriculture) and (2)social ethics (fair trade and ethical trade). Then it describes how the actors in the movements producers, retailers, NGOs, and governments) are organized and how consumers perceive each of the movements. From the perspective of the actors in the movements themselves, the movements are grouped into two 'actors' philosophies' : a “radical” philosophy (the organic production and fair trade movements that arose in radical opposition to conventional agriculture or unfair trade relations) and a “reformist” philosophy (the integrated agriculture and ethical trade movements that arose as efforts to modify but not radically change conventional agriculture). From the point of view of consumers, the classification of the movements is based on perceptions of the 'domain' of the movements. That is, consumers tend to perceive as a grouping the organic production movement and the integrated agricultural movement, as they both deal with the environment. By contrast, consumers tend to group the fair trade movement and the ethical trade movement, as they both deal essentially with social ethics. Recently, key players such as large retailers and agribusinesses have adopted as part of their overall quality assurance programs both the environmental and the ethical attributes. Their involvement in and adoption of the goals of the movements have, however, generated tensions and conflicts, in particular within the radical movements, because of concerns of cooptation. The paper identifies challenges for those promoting food products with environmental and social/ethical attributes to communicate coherent signals to consumers at this crucial moment of an emerging mass market for these products.
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