A study published in the Journal Appetite (Vol 62, 1 March 2013, pages 133-142) by Katrin Zander (University of Kassell, Germany) et al,

‘Promising ethical arguments for product differentiation in the organic food sector. A mixed methods research approach’ suggests that producers of organic products can differentiate themselves from competitors by better utilizing on pack ethical messages based on standards that are above the minimum regulations. In the study, organic products were tested against each other. The research notes that with ‘ethical consumerism’ growing as a trend worldwide, consumer expectations are increasing and neither the organic or Fairtrade concepts can cover all the ethical concerns. Against this background the aim of the research was to elicit consumers’ preferences regarding organic food with additional ethical attributes and their relevance at the market place.

A mixed methods research approach was applied by combining an Information Display Matrix, Focus Group Discussions and Choice Experiments in five European countries. According to the results of the Information Display Matrix, ‘higher animal welfare’, ‘local production’ and ‘fair producer prices’ were preferred in all countries.

In Focus Groups, the arguments were presented in a factual manner, using short and concise statements. In this research step, consumers in all countries except Austria gave priority to ‘local production’. ‘Higher animal welfare’ and ‘fair producer prices’ turned out to be relevant for buying decisions only in Germany and Switzerland.

The researchers said that according to the results, there is substantial potential for product differentiation in the organic sector through making use of production standards that exceed existing minimum regulations.

“Apart from adjusting systems of production, successful product differentiation depends on target-oriented and effective communication with consumers,” the researchers said. “Organic farmers and processors need to communicate the additional efforts that are reflected in their production processes. Only then are consumers given the opportunity to make purchase decisions that consider individual ethical attitudes and convictions.”

The team noted that further topics for research in the area included the extent to which consumer preferences for additional ethical attributes vary between different food products. Another interesting question is related to consumer preferences when comparing organic with conventional products, the researchers said.