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China’s green shelves and conscious consumers

In Europe and North America, “ethical” consumption is all the rage at supermarkets. From Fairtrade to organic food retailers, such as the UK’s Planet Organic and America’s Whole Foods, sales are up.

In the UK alone, Fairtrade says sales are up 62% over the last four years, while it is estimated that the UK’s ethical food market will top US$3.7 billion this year (though, by way of contrast, Britain’s total grocery market is worth US$223 billion).

In the West, the drive towards ethical, organic and green foods seems to be driven by rising incomes and the adoption of more ethical lifestyles by the middle classes.

The supermarket chains are getting in on the act in a big way – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Wal-Mart and ASDA have all launched organic food lines, tried to reduce unnecessary packaging and offer environmentally friendly shopping bags. The greenness and “organic-ness” of some of their products are questionable, but the move is in the right direction.

With the news that Anhui-based green retailer Guoqi Green Supermarket is expanding into Shanghai, what can we make of the market (real and potential) for green foods and ethical shopping in China? True, a small number of people may be shopping with an environmental conscience, but the main driver (according to surveys) is more likely to be worries over poor hygiene, the rash of recent food contamination scares and tainted produce.

Either way, generally good news, and if consumers are increasingly willing to pay a little more for green or organic foods then hopefully this can both raise incomes somewhat in the countryside, and also improve farming techniques and practises.

Nothing has improved rural production techniques and standards more than the little payments or incentives for produce offered by the man from the food ministry being replaced by the Japanese supermarket chain buyers offering high margins for high quality produce.

Still there’s a long way to go. Companies selling refrigeration and farm-to-fork logistics equipment and technology still report that sales are hard to find, and funding for upgrading production in the rural areas scarce.

This brings us to the thorny issue of green and organic standards in China – or rather the confusion over these standards.

At the moment “green” certificates are being issued by a range of government and quasi-government institutions, including the China Green Food Development Centre (CGFDC) in Beijing, and the Organic Tea Research and Development Centre (OTRDC), as well as a growing number of foreign certifiers setting up shop in China, such as ECOCERT International and Bio Control Systems (BCS) from Germany; the Institute for Marketecology of Switzerland; the Soil Association of the UK; and the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) from the USA.

If the consumer is not to become bewildered by this mass of certification some order will be required.

Pinched from Paul and Matt’s Access Asia newsletter. Both also write for Ethical Corporation, hence the copy theft for the blog.

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