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“Organic Consumer” is an Oxymoron

In use for centuries, the term ‘consumer’ came into its own in the 1920s, as our economy offered a greater volume and variety of things to purchase, accompanied by the development of advertising and personal credit, which together brought us to the point where marketing can be referred to as the business of convincing people to buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have.

While we might debate its value to our trade, I doubt many of us would argue that, had the word not already achieved universal application, ‘consumer’ would be our first choice as a self-identifier.

When I consider how to approach “consumer education,” I believe we first need to educate people that they are something different and more than a consumer, a term that, as one colleague pointed out to me, infers that our role is simply to show up, buy and use stuff up, minus responsibility for how it was produced or distributed.

Which is precisely how the conventional food and fiber sectors want us to behave. There is no need for us to see behind the curtain. In some cases, they even try to prevent us from seeing behind the curtain, as they oppose labeling of GMOs and pass laws making it illegal to document or object to conventional practices. Our role is to show up to examine finished product, consider price, and make our selections. Period.

By its nature, our trade encourages a different approach. We offer shoppers the opportunity to witness production and distribution from soil to table, as we take down the curtain and provide visibility into organic practices and presence at the table when we deliberate guidelines and regulations.

This approach calls for us to recognize different roles with different labels, of which at least two are close at hand:

  • “Eaters”—Wendell Berry did us the favor of defining eating as an agricultural act, and I think most shoppers of organic goods would embrace the term. These shoppers aren’t typically producers beyond a garden, if that, but they are conscious in their purchasing, truly voting with their dollars.
  • “Co-producers”—courtesy of SLOW Food, which asks us to not only look behind the curtain, but to go there as a participant in supporting the transitions we seek. There are many opportunities here, mostly in contacting producers directly, not only at their farm or farmers’ markets or through CSAs, but also by engaging organizations that support the evolution of integrated holistic production of food.

When I entered the trade 40 years ago, we referred to the status quo as “commercial.” That was, until we admitted to ourselves that our efforts were also commercial. We wondered where to go from that descriptor and ultimately determined that “conventional” was a more accurate term for agricultural products and practices that weren’t organic and soon the switch was made across the board. We did it once, so I know we can do it again.

Reframing our business relationship with our fellow citizens ultimately requires us to be compassionate, transparent, and accountable in the totality of our dealings. It empowers them to make informed decisions, and compels us to solicit, intuit and respect their needs.

David Lively is Pioneer Emeritus at Organically Grown Company and a member of OTA’s Board of Directors.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 Organic Report, you can view the full magazine here.