Consumer Behaviour in the Organic Food Sector in the United Kingdom

Published 22 Feb 2017

Table of content


According to Bone (2006) the organic food market in the United Kingdom was valued at 1.6 billion pounds sterling in 2005. This figure was up from 0.8 billion pounds sterling in 2000. Several factors have been attributed to this impressive market growth. Notable among them include trends towards healthy eating and living and concerns for food safety and the environment. The latter reason is spawning what has been described as green consumerism. Quite apart from discernible tags such as labels, organic foods are distinguishable from non-organic foods by the methods used in production and processing (Lohr, 2007). Furthermore, it is generally accepted that the production of organic food prohibits the use of pesticides, inorganic fertilizers, growth promoters and livestock feed additives.

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Like any other product or service, consumer perceptions, attitudes and behaviour towards organic food products are rarely static. They do change with time. Similarly, the motivation of customers to purchase organic foods is subject to changes attributed to internal and external factors. To successfully market organic food products to consumers and prospects therefore, it is important that their perceptions and attitudes are accurately gauged. It is only then that the most effective marketing mixes can be developed to reach them. Consumer behaviour research provides the needed information to assist managerial decision-making in these areas. According to Sheth, Mittal and Newman (1999) customers play three different roles as far as the purchase and use of any item is concerned. As such, customers can play the role of buyer, payer and eater of organic food products. These roles can be performed by the same person or different persons. A parent, who purchases organic food for his household, serves all the three roles at the same time but the other members of the household only take up the function of eaters. Through the understanding gained of the different roles of a consumer, marketers are able to market a product to meet the different requirements of the consumer.

Literature Review

Several studies have been carried out in the United Kingdom to gain understanding of consumer behaviour towards organic food. Makatouni (2002), for example, studied what motivates consumers, mainly parents with children aged four to twelve years, when they buy organic food in the United Kingdom. Of primary concern to this researcher was the beliefs consumer had with respect to organic food. This research worker discovered that consumer’s human, animal and environment-centered values constituted the key motivating factors for organic food purchase. Is there a good basis to assume that different results would have been obtained if participants with different demographical profile were chosen for this study?

Davies, Titterington and Cochrane (1995) gave the profile of actual purchasers of organic produce as females aged 30 to 45 years with children and having a higher level of disposable income. According to these researchers, the primary motives for purchasing organic food were consideration for the environment and health reasons. They also pointed out that there appeared to be a distinction between those who claimed to be interested in the environment and those who regularly buy organic products. Elsewhere in the United States, Ottman (1992) also offered a similar profile of organic food consumers. From this typical profile of green consumers, it can be said that the participants interviewed for Makatouni’s study were more likely to be the type that showed greater inclination towards protecting the environment and therefore would buy organic foods.

Harper and Makatouni (2002) also carried out investigations into consumer attitudes towards organic food and animal welfare in the United Kingdom. The results indicated that consumers often confused organic and free range products because they believed that “organic” is equivalent to “free range” food. Focus group discussions revealed that health and food safety concerns were the main motives for organic food purchases. It has been found that in many instances consumers are prepared to pay premium prices for organic foods because of these reasons (Ocran, 2004). Ethical concerns, with respect to standards of animal welfare, were also found to play a significant role in the decision to purchase organic foods.

Perhaps the consideration of organic foods and animal welfare together in the study led the research participants to confuse organic food and food obtained under free range systems. Organic food can come from both plant and animal sources, whereas the terminology “free range” is used restrictively to only animals. Livestock animals and poultry are reared on free-range but not food plants. Thus, the confusion of interchanging organic food with free range food may not have arisen if the study of consumer attitudes to organic food was separated from that of animal welfare. On the basis of the findings of this study, Harper and Makatouni (2002) suggested that organic food marketers could take advantage of research on consumer motivation to buy free-range products by embodying ethical concerns as an indicator of product quality. Equating free range products to quality may require further clarifications to the consumer. This is because the fact that animal has been raised under free-range system does not necessarily raise its status higher quality-wise. The animal may be free from agro-chemicals but it could also be under a burden of parasites.

Hutchins and Greenhalgh (1995) examined the marketing orientation in the organic produce sector. They found from a consumer survey that consumers were confused about the meaning of the term “organic”. They also found that the current mechanisms for labeling organic produce were ineffective. These research authors proposed that producers of organic foods should consider consumer research and strategic planning as mechanisms for sustaining a market which has greater potential than was currently realized.

This particular study was carried out more than a decade ago when the organic market was not as well organized as it is now. Effective labeling could serve a good purpose to organic food consumers as well as producer. It would make it easier for the former to identify true organic food products from the fake ones, whilst making it easier for the latter to charge premium prices on the market. In this respect, both sides stand to benefit if organic food products are well labeled and categorized. According to Lohr (2007) the increasing presence in supermarkets and a broader base of consumer support for both occasional and regular buyers of organic food is expanding organic food markets worldwide. This research worker further pointed out that taste, freshness, quality and food safety concerns drive consumer demand for organic food products. She also added that price premiums, price-quality trade offs as well as country of origin, GE content and other social concerns would likely determine future market expansion. It needs to be stressed the extent to which these enumerated factors influence demand and consumption of organic food differ widely worldwide and within the United Kingdom.

Padel and Foster (2005) also explored the values that undergirded consumers purchasing decisions of organic food. The study drew data from focus groups and laddering interviews of one hundred and eighty one (181) regular and occasional consumers of organic food. The results of the study revealed that most consumers associated organic at first with vegetables and fruit and a healthy diet with organic products. Fruit and vegetables were also found to be the first and in many cases the only experience respondents had with buying organic product. The researchers also found the consumer decision-making process to be a complex one. The importance of the motives and barriers were also found to vary with the product categories considered. The research authors pointed out that the findings have implications for future sector-based communications to consumers and potentially for product development and labeling. It is clear from this review that a great of consumer education is still needed in the marketing and consumption of organic foods.

Organic meat production and consumption has caught on well with consumers in recent years. McEachern and Willock (2004) therefore looked at the motivation of producers of organic meat for adopting organic farming techniques and also tried to find out whether organic consumers shared their values. These research authors sought to find out whether the motivations of producers were based on economic or ethical concerns. Further more, they tried to find out the motivations that underpinned consumer’s organic food purchases. Clearly, economic reasons have upper hand for producers that adopt organic meat production. Consideration of ethics may be for producers who have animal welfare concerns at heart.

Even with this category of producers, one cannot completely rule out monetary considerations. Mceachern and Schroder (2002) also examined the specific values held by consumers toward organic and conventionally produced meat, with particular reference to moral issues surrounding food animal production. A quota of thirty females from both rural and urban area of Scotland (United Kingdom) was interviewed. It was established that there was a low commitment towards the purchase of organic meats and little concern for ethical issues. The researchers also found that the price and product appearance were the primary meat selection criteria, the latter being used as a predictor of eating quality. The researchers however, conceded that many attitude-behaviour anomalies were identified mainly as a result of respondents cognitive dissonance and lack of understanding of meat production criteria that underpinned meat quality marks. Judging from the small sample size used for the study, these findings cannot be extrapolated to the larger population with a high degree of confidence.


The review has brought to the fore the important role organic food products play in the economy of United Kingdom. It has also highlighted the important factors that affect the consumption of organic food. Prominent among them are its freshness, safety, better quality and taste as well as the trend towards healthy eating. Given its market value of 1.6 billion pounds sterling and annual growth rate of between 25 to 35 percent (Bone, 2006; Lohr, 2007), the organic food sectors has a very bright future. It is anticipated that as the craze for healthy eating and living catches on with a greater number of the population, it would have a positive effect on the organic food market.


  • Bone, D. (2006). UK Organic food boom driven by health. Material retrieved on February, 21st, 2007.
  • Davies, A., Titterington, A.J. and Cochrane, C. (1995). Who buys organic food?: A profile of the purchasers of organic food in Northern Ireland, British Food Journal, 97 (10):17-23.
  • Harper, G.C. and Makatouni, A. (2002). Consumer perception of organic food production and farm animal welfare, British Food Journal, 104 (3/4/5):287-299.
  • Hutchins, R.K. and Greenhalgh, L.A. (1995). Organic confusion: Sustaining competitive advantage, Nutrition and Food Science, 95(6):11-14.
  • Lohr, L. (2007). Factors affecting international demand and trade in organic food products in changing structure of global food consumption and trade, Economic Research Service, USDA, USA.
  • Makatouni, A. (2002). What motivates consumers to buy organic food in the UK? Results from a qualitative study, British Food Journal, 104 (3/5):345-352(8).
  • Mceachern, M.G. and Schroder, M.J.A. (2002). The role of livestock production ethics in consumer values towards meat, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 15(2):221-237.
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