First published here.
It’s in a squat plastic jar on the third shelf of my fridge. It’s not actually the finest jam available but I think it is. Why? Because my best friend made it and it’s infused with sincerity, friendship and warmth.
The multi-billion dollar market research industry is convinced purchasing decisions are influenced by personality and origin. But although consumers may respond instinctively to this feel-good sheen on advertising or packaging, do they genuinely care about the finer details of where their goods originate, and the wellbeing of those involved in making them? And does caring actually make any difference to what they buy?
The care factor certainly plays its part in a purchase decision, according to a late 2008 survey by consumer advocacy publication Choice.
Choice asked 1000 Australians to nominate their key considerations when purchasing clothes, major appliances, hi-tech goods, and baby and children’s products.
First and foremost consumers cared about the factors that affected them directly: price, performance and quality. Once these criteria were met, however, their focus widened to other factors.Nearly half of respondents said the working conditions and human rights of those who made their products were important factors.
Previous awareness campaigns have had an impact. In the 1990s, anti-sweatshop activists targeted Nike in a prolonged campaign that moved into mainstream public awareness. When survey respondents were asked if they’d boycotted any products for ethical reasons the company named the most was Nike.
These days, almost half of respondents consider the working conditions of clothes-makers to be important. And news scandals about toxic additives have exacerbated people’s concerns about the country of origin of toys, especially China.
Polls and purchasing are two different beasts, however. “The jury is still out on how much lip service people pay to these issues,” says Elise Davidson, media officer at Choice. “They might say it’s high on the list but there could be a substantial gap between words and action.”
Taylor Mork is the Chicago-based co-founder of ‘relationship coffee’ importer Crop to Cup. Crop to Cup sources coffee from Uganda and sells it to roasters, restaurants, cafes and individuals in the US. The organisation calls its product ‘relationship coffee’ because Mork and co-founder Jake Elster ditched ‘product anonymity’ by linking the producers (farmers in Uganda) to the consumers (coffee drinkers in America). As reward for their participation, Crop to Cup farmers receive 5% of every coffee purchase and 10% of company profits.
“There’s a vast unseen coffee-producing frontier out there,” says Mork. “The coffee business is done by weight, so who, what, when or where doesn’t matter. By the time it reaches the consumer it’s often stripped of that origin information. Relationship coffee takes pride in telling you where and who the coffee came from.”
The primary market for most coffee hinges on price and taste, but for Crop to Cup this is a secondary market for coffee that already has market appeal on ethical grounds. Mork admits Crop to Cup can’t compete on price and, as such, it doesn’t try.
“We don’t market to the average gas station, we pursue specialty markets that want more from their coffee,” he says.
While it’s essentially a fair trade model, Crop to Cup was dissuaded by the costs and logistical challenges of pursuing Fair Trade certification. Instead, it took matters into its own hands and turned to internet-based technologies such as email, video, and plug-ins, including Google Maps and YouTube. Crop to Cup uses the internet to dissolve distances and enable communication between farmers, buyers and consumers.
“It’s ‘see it for yourself’ accountability,” says Mork. “Certification can provide assurance about prices paid to farmers, but we wanted direct communication between consumers and farmers to drive that process.
“Many successful coffee companies are moving away from a certification approach to a direct-trade open supply chain approach to ethical trading.”
Two way flow
It’s a business model that would make many other companies shudder. But Mork says he is merely latching on to the market’s increasing demand for product transparencies and product life stories.
Many larger companies now disclose product origin information on their public websites. Outdoor clothing company Patagonia operates a website called ‘The Footprint Chronicles’ that documents the lifecycle impact of manufacturing its products.
It’s an impressively comprehensive and upfront website that discloses the good, the bad and the ugly about specific Patagonia products.
An animated display shows the distance travelled, energy consumed, waste generated and carbon emitted for each garment, for example, a cashmere ‘hoody’.
Co-founder of creative agency August, Zoe Warne, says there’s a risk of customers going elsewhere for information if companies and suppliers aren’t transparent online about how they operate.
“Why encourage them to leave your site at the critical point of purchase? Why not modify your e-commerce experience to answer their question immediately, and therefore increase your conversion rate?”
There’s the paradox: consumers crave information but they can also be overwhelmed by it, especially if it’s a one-way flow. Crop to Cup, and companies like it, have taken Patagonia’s principle one step further and made the process a two-way exchange that engages the consumer in a personal interaction.
A New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development (NZBSC) survey in April 2008 echoed the Choice survey, showing ethical considerations to be hot on the tail of price and quality.
The NZBSC survey also reported that in forming an opinion about the environmental, social or ethical aspects of a brand, advertising influenced only 8%. Personal experience of a product or service had the most influence at 42%.
“It has been the personable aspects of our coffee’s branding that has caught the customer’s eye the most,” says Mork. “Viewers often make comments like, ‘Wow, he has six kids!’”
Not just about green
If you have ever bought wine while travelling, it’s likely you have had a friendly cellar door experience that ended up with you lugging a little (or a lot) more wine than planned. The more you learned about the wines and the winemaker, the more you wanted to buy. Naked Wines is an online wine seller based in the UK that has begun to translate the cellar door experience to a web model using interactive web 2.0 tools.
Visit the Naked Wines website and you can question boutique winemakers all over the world, learn from a community of wine enthusiasts, rate wine and set preferences. The site can even match people who have bought exactly the same vintage to share valuable advice.
“I really struggled with this one,” says one Naked Wines’ member about a Baptiste Domaine Cristia Gigondas 2007. “Left to breathe but still put up a fight… not enough fruit for my liking… is this a wine that would be greatly improved if laid down for a few years?”
According to founder Rowan Gormley, Naked Wines offers winemakers the privilege of spending less time marketing and more time making great wine. “The typical bottle of wine bought in the UK has only 30p of wine in it. And £1 of marketing,” reads the homepage.
“The bad news for small winemakers is that no matter how good their wines are, they don’t sell themselves – until we came along. So they have to either sell the wine to one of the big brands for peanuts. Or they have to buy a suit, an air ticket, and waste their time and money travelling the world selling their wines. We want to change all that.”
Gormley believes people care about where wine comes from because they’re cynical about marketing. “They don’t care about origin in a Yarra Valley versus Coonawarra sense,” he says. “They care about whether the wine was made by a winemaker or an accountant and whether it is genuinely a handcrafted boutique drop. They want authenticity and there’s nothing more authentic than talking to the person who made it.”