It’s 2:00 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, and you’re standing in the produce aisle of your local grocery store, contemplating the benefits of pink lady apples versus mandarin oranges, when your eye is suddenly drawn to the label. Whether consciously or subconsciously, you begin to analyze the words and phrases printed there and compare them to both your values and social ideals.
The label on the bag of apples highlights words like “organic” and “sustainable,” immediately bringing to mind images of lush farmland free of toxic chemicals and commercial practices. This perception of organic food (defined as “crops or livestock that are grown on the farm without the application of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and without genetically modified organisms”) influences consumer decisions in terms of both which items they purchase and the price they are willing to pay.
Organic foods are, on average, 47 percent more expensive than conventional foods, although the difference varies wildly. Despite the higher sticker price, organic sales were up 11 percent last year, topping $39 billion. Why does an organic label make such a difference? It’s all about consumer psychology.
In a recent study, researchers from Cornell University found that organic labeling can affect perceptions of taste, caloric content, and intrinsic value, thus altering the kinds of products consumers will buy as well as what they delineate to be a fair price. The researchers discovered this by giving 115 participants two samples each of yogurt, potato chips, and cookies to evaluate. The participants were informed that one sample in each of the pairs was organic, and the other was not. The control was that both were actually identical certified organic foodstuffs. The researchers concluded that “the cookies and yogurt were estimated to have significantly fewer calories when labeled ‘organic’ and people were willing to pay up to 23.4% more for them.”
It’s not just personal health considerations that cause consumers to value organic products more highly—concern for the environment can be a powerful factor. In one Swedish study, students were given two cups of coffee to taste test. They were told that one was “eco-friendly,” and the other was not. In reality, both cups were poured from the same thermos. When told in advance which cup was “eco-friendly,” participants said that one tasted better and were willing to pay more for it. When high-sustainability participants weren’t told which cup was which, they were still willing to pay more for the eco-friendly coffee, “even when they were told, after their decision, that they preferred the non-labeled alternative.”
Their willingness, though still tied to personal preference in some ways, is also due to their desire to perform an act of altruism. It follows then that the label itself, combined with education and social awareness, can affect consumers’ psychology, whether or not they immediately recognize it. Just call it food for thought the next time you’re perusing the shelves at your favorite organic market.