Less than 10 years ago the world didn’t know its organic assets from its toxic overflow, but the Green Revolution has been gathering momentum and consumers are slowly coming round to the fact that true beauty is more than just cellophane deep. Where once they only looked at the price tag and the smiling faces of the nuclear family on the packaging, today’s customers are increasingly demanding to know what went into the product they are buying, where it came from and what cost it has inflicted on the Earth we all share. As larger companies scramble to break the bad habits of decades past, there is an ever-growing demand for organic and environmentally friendly products. Could your new bestseller be the next Green sensation?
Any shift in the marketplace represents opportunity. The big players like Pick n Pay and Woolworths are trying to woo back lost customers with their new organic ranges but to a certain extent the damage has already been done. People ask difficult questions like “How is it you were happy to sell dangerous additives to my child last year but now you’re suddenly green? Are all the ingredients listed or is this just cosmetic change? Can I really trust you now?” Even if they are prepared to take organic claims at face value they might ask “Exactly how environmentally friendly are all those large trucks?”
In environmental terms a product that is produced locally and has not been industrially processed or filled with harmful additives may be able to boast qualities that your larger competition simply can’t offer. The big franchises are often hampered by their size and the public’s perception. This has led to the development of a niche market for Green and organic goods. In 2010 the world spent $59bn on organic products and although the South African market is still behind the international curve, organic goods might well represent a great business opportunity for the right person entering the market with the right product.
Before you go rooting in the garden for tubers or start eyeing your backyard with an eye to raising free-range chickens, let’s take a quick reality check. You need to make your decisions based on practical considerations rather than hype. We all want to save the planet but it’s better to be cautious than get carried away. It would be a mistake to think that you can just slap a Green sticker on everything and rake in the cash.
There is a certain amount of hysteria around environmental and health issues but you should remember that, if anything, this is likely to make potential customers ask more questions not less. All businesses, however well intentioned and ethical, are a risk and even though the Green Revolution is only really about five or six years old in South Africa, it has already seen its share of failures.
As Robyn Asti, co-owner of Faithful to Nature puts it, “The golden goose is not as golden as I think many people may believe it is. Stay grounded and do your research before leaping into the industry”.
Robyn would certainly know. Her website offers more than 3000 unique organic products and 140 brands. Faithful to Nature started back in 2006 and has been vetting and selling organic products ever since. While other countries have official regulating bodies like the UDSA (food and cosmetics in the US) and NaTrue (organic cosmetics in Europe), South Africa is still relatively lax when it comes to establishing who can and who can’t call their product organic.
That’s why organisations like Faithful to Nature and others like Organic Choice can be so useful to both seller and consumer alike. By ensuring that they have strict criteria for what ingredients can be used in a product, both these websites help to educate customers and to give them access to true organic products. If your product complies with their standards then they might well be a good outlet and an assurance to your customers that you are truly organic.
As many of the larger stores jumping on the green bandwagon are finding out, just talking the talk is no longer enough. The new South African food labelling regulations that came into effect on March 1 may make no specific pronouncement on who can call themselves ‘organic’ but it does make it law for all ingredients to be listed and enforces truthful descriptions.
As Patrick Holford recently found out, to his cost, the days when you could use terms like ‘intelligent fats’ are gone, which personally comes as a bit of a relief since all that conjures up in my mind is images from the movie ‘The Blob’. So now that the law holds you to the truth, nothing short of the truth will do, and you can also expect your customers to be sharper than ever before when it comes to winkling out the dirty little secrets on the back of the pack, ever more so with products listed on such websites as Organic Choice and Faithful to Nature whose ingredients could be listed as some of the worst offenders. With Google offering a run down on every additive at the touch of a mouse, you’d be a fool to try and slip anything past your consumer.
A bleak outlook for those prepared to bend the truth, but an advantage for any business prepared to genuinely embrace Green and organic values. The nature of business and indeed our whole society is shifting as more and more people want to escape the industrial paradigm of the past. Where once the only reason to start a business was to make money, now people are demanding more from the people with whom they do business; nowadays you need to be committed to the ideals that people believe in and your company needs to clearly represent those ideals.
Nowhere is the need to stand by a core set of principles more important than in the Green and organic movements that have, in large part, grown out of the dissatisfaction with corporate duplicity and the impersonal nature of the mass-produced and environmentally harmful products they offer.
The concept of extrinsic cost is permeating society’s consciousness and now it is not enough for the consumer that something is a good price, the consumer also wants to know that it isn’t the planet that is actually footing the bill. Your potential customers are also more aware than ever of what they are putting into or onto their bodies and organic products represent an ethical, healthy option that appeals to a new generation of consumers who want to know more than they ever have before about the products they use. This growing consciousness is much publicised but it is still, in many respects, in its infancy.
As the public’s knowledge base grows and it gets more used to asking the right questions, businesses are going to find it harder and harder to obfuscate behind small print and obscure chemistry. In many ways the Green Movement offers the perfect environment for committed entrepreneurs as they can exploit a niche market, can afford to be small and work from home and their personal touch can be the element responsible for initial successes. The flip side of the coin, however, is that their integrity and commitment to Green principles can end up being the underlying basis of their business’s success.
So given how important it is to consistently offer organic and environmentally friendly products, if you want to survive in the industry, what does being organic and green actually mean? The terms are used so loosely that it can often be hard to know what people are talking about. To put it simply, an organic product is any product that comprises natural or non-harmful constituents whereas a Green product is not harmful to the environment. So a biodegradable bottle could be regarded as Green, but its contents could still fail to meet the standards of being organic. If you want to know if a product is organic then the first thing to do is obtain a full list of its ingredients.
If you see things like ammonia, PPD or Propylene Glycol then that’s a bad sign and your product probably fails outright. If you are in doubt you could do what the people at Organic Choice do and check the Environmental Working Group database. The database ranks the health hazards of various ingredients from zero to 10. As a rule of thumb Organic Choice wouldn’t consider anything with a rating over four as acceptable in an organic product. You can be more confident of your product if it has been assured by the USDA, EcoCert, BDIH, NaTrue or the Soil Association.
All these organisations are foreign bodies that regulate items like cosmetics and food products. Since laws are stricter on this issue in Europe and the US than in South Africa, any product bearing these seals can safely be assumed to be organic.
Let’s assume you decide that you’d like to get into organic merchandise. The chances are that you don’t have a farm to grow organic food, though other less resource-intensive products might be an option. Anything from organic confectionary to organic clothing might be a popular product. The important thing is that you have a solid business plan. The demand for organic produce is unquestionable but that doesn’t exempt you from the risks that any start-up business would face.
You are going to have to find financing, develop your customer base and make sure you hire the right people who share your vision. According to Robyn Astl, one of the sectors of the organic market that is lagging behind in South Africa is environmentally friendly packaging. She recommends products made from organic cotton, bamboo or hemp along with non-perishable certified organic foods and organic baby foods. Lilia Simeonova, the owner of Organic Choice says that her site is looking for more locally produced products. One example she gave was their new line of organic hair dyes which at present are imported from Germany.
Obviously if a local supplier could provide a comparable product it would be both lucrative and beneficial to the environment.
Whatever you decide to adopt as your product, you need to be sure of its demand and desirability. You can do this in several ways. If you decide you want to be involved in selling an already established product then do your homework and look at the product’s track record. If you decide that you are going to be bringing something new to the local organic market then get the opinions of friends and family, try your products out at the various organic markets in order to gauge public response.
You might even decide to go the online route. As always this might represent a way of keeping your costs low but the problem with this approach to business is how to get your customers to look for your product in the first place. If you are confident of your product’s organic credentials and its desirability, then it might be a good idea to approach established online businesses like Organic Choice and Faithful to Nature.
Throughout this article I have asked you to bear in mind that if you want to start a career in the organic industry then you have to treat it with the same respect and caution as you would any other start-up business. I’d like to end this article by saying that it is also more than a business. By tapping into the organic market you are tapping into a movement, a new way of thinking that you have to truly come to grips with if your organic business is going to grow to its full potential.
To quote Lilia Simeonova on this issue, “To start an organic business is not just about making money, it is about changing and preserving the world”. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the profit motive, it is after all the driving force behind so many of humanity’s accomplishments but as our cultures and priorities develop, it is vital that business adapts with these growing needs and changing realities.
Whether you are planning to join the organic movement today or not, it is probably true to say that in our lifetime we will see a shift in ideology and business practice that means that everyone will have to be more mindful of the ecological and ethical issues that underlie the Green/organic movement. The real question you have to ask yourself is whether you want to take the opportunity to ride the wave or whether you want to be under it when it breaks.