Is it really possible, especially in a deep recession, to reconcile value with "values"? Market research reveals a largish proportion of consumers who say they won't abandon ethics when buying food, but we all know that what they say and what they do are often far apart. So when a chief executive proclaims the success of his business in closing that gap - as Peter Marks did on behalf of The Cooperative Group at the recent IFE - we must obviously take notice.
Maybe I'm biased, but I found this fellow Yorkshireman's clarity and frankness thoroughly convincing, in marked contrast to the usual egocentric, cliché-ridden perorations one tends to hear at food industry events. He stressed the Co-op's pioneering development of the fair trade market and its strong record on buying British, animal welfare and the environment. He was particularly honest about relations with suppliers. Yes, it was important to treat suppliers well but he will use the extra buying clout the Somerfield deal has given him to keep the Co-op's prices competitive. Yes, he wants a sustainable supply base but isn't going to subsidise his rivals.
Across the industry, however, the picture is more ambiguous. One in four consumers and rising now buy fair trade products, whereas organic is now the choice of less than one in five and falling. The Soil Association is desperately trying to downplay this decline and it's certainly true to say that while sales of some organic lines have fallen off a cliff, others seem to be more resilient. Nevertheless, the underlying trend is clear and some farmers must be wishing they had never gone into this market in the first place.
Why the contrast in the fortunes of these two segments of the "ethical" market? The answer lies somewhere in consumers' motivation to buy these products. The organic market was going nowhere until the great "Frankenstein foods" hysteria of the late 1990s when organic was seized on as a safe and healthy alternative.
The trouble is that there is still no conclusive scientific evidence that organic is safer or healthier than conventional alternatives. So paying a stiff premium for organic when family budgets are being cut back makes less sense when there's no compelling health reason to do so. Fair trade, by contrast, has a wider and stronger emotional appeal, transcending the modest premium it carries. So it comes down to plain old marketing in the end.
Kevin Hawkins is an independent retail consultant.