Consumer demand for naturals speaks to a profound trend within our society

horloge copy 7 Created with Sketch. 5 MIN

Nathalie Damery

Chair and co-founder of consulting firm ObSoCo (in France, the Observatory of Society and Consumption) Nathalie Damery, who holds post-graduate qualifications in political science and philosophy, has spent years analysing the changes taking place in society, commerce and consumer models. As the growing consumer obsession for natural products turns these models upside down, she shares her views on this trend.

“Naturalness” is an ideology that has evolved out of industrialised societies

Interest in “naturalness”, evidenced by a desire to consume natural products, is spreading throughout our Western societies. “Once a marginal consideration, it has imposed itself as a dominant ideology across all sectors in recent decades”, says Nathalie. She pairs this trend with the changing shape of our industrial societies. Following the urbanisation of the 19th Century, society entered the era of mass consumerism in the wake of the Second World War. “This was when people first started asking questions. It was a period that saw the birth of the hippy counter culture, which advocated a return to the earth, and also the first oil shocks, which made people realise that resources were getting scarcer.” But Nathalie argues that it was really from the 1980s, with the rise of the service economy, that the concept of naturalness really came to the fore. “This was the first generation to have no direct ties to farming. It was also the first time that most women had jobs, which increased the popularity of ready-made food and severed traditional ties. People began asking about what they were eating and consuming.” These concerns became heightened over the decades that followed as food scandals (beef, poultry, horsemeat), health crises (contaminated blood, growth hormones) and other pollution-related concerns prompted people to query the official lines offered by governments and businesses. As a result, says Nathalie: “We went from being a society based on trust to being a society based on mistrust. Consumers nowadays want answers to existential questions such as: Where does this product come from? How was it made? What raw material went into it? They are looking for guidance.”

Naturals offer a safe haven in a world seen as potentially dangerous

In this environment, naturals offer a safe haven. “In a world sometimes seen and felt as being toxic, natural products are among the rare things that are still viewed as positive by consumers in most Western countries and sectors”, she says.

This faith flows from several factors. First, consumers spontaneously associate well-being with natural products. “The desire to buy natural grew out of a fear of unknowingly consuming antibiotics or pesticides or of using endocrine disruptors. For most people, natural has become synonymous with survival and is seen as a way to maintain your health, which accounts for the consumer appeal of products with a short ingredient list and a label that is easy to read”, says Nathalie. Next comes the closely related environmental angle. “Natural products have come to mean products that are not heavily processed and that therefore have a limited environmental impact. Consumers are thus tending to steer clear of overprocessed products, to the point that this has become the second most important purchasing factor after health preservation, with 73% of modern consumers saying they feel better buying a product that is respectful of people and biodiversity. Naturalness has become a guiding light for consumer behaviour.”

By adding symbolism to the shopping basket and offering the promise of a clear conscience, natural products pave the way for greater personal well-being

The quest for the natural is not driven solely by rational factors like staying healthy or being a green warrior. “It also underpins deeper intellectual, moral and emotional needs among customers”, Nathalie tells us.

In the 21st Century, this quest is also a means for consumers to achieve greater personal well-being. “Every day, people face conflicting pressures. They want to consume sustainably, but they also want to eat high-quality imported foods. They yearn for a smaller carbon footprint, but can’t imagine sacrificing their Wi-Fi. They are caught between their idealised life and their daily life.” To ease the mental burden, consumers add symbolism to their shopping and make gestures – buying detox juices, say, or products labelled as natural – to achieve an acceptable trade-off between the contradictory demands. The naturalness may be artificially constructed, but it makes them feel better. As Nathalie puts it: “This quest for the natural is a quest not for a better world but for greater personal well-being in the here and now.”

Looking for Paradise Lost

She views this quest is a logical consequence of the point at which our industrialised societies have arrived. “Naturalness offers a counterpoint to the dehumanised and disembodied nature of industrial production. Consumers are looking for a Rousseauvian world in its natural state, a world that has not been designed, stained or worked by humankind.” She describes this as a search for Paradise Lost. But did this fantasy world ever exist?

While she does not claim to have the answers to this question, Nathalie is sure of one thing: “Today, efficiency is too precious to consumers to imagine it being sacrificed on the altar of unadulterated naturalness. We have to find a new way to reconcile these goals.” A potential solution might lie with technology, which she believes can be harnessed to deliver unprecedented performances with a reduced environmental footprint. “We are moving towards a model of augmented humanity. By using technology to enhance and optimise our own resources, we can avoid misusing those of the planet.”

Innovation | November 2017