Here’s an interesting piece about the delicate matter of marketing products at the (apparently) fragile intersection of terms like “organic” and “natural” and “GM-free.”
By Melanie Warner, for Bnet: How Silk Soymilk’s Cost-Cutting Dis of Organic Backfired
Back in early 2009, Silk, the leading brand of soymilk, quietly stopped using certified organic soybeans and removed the word ‘organic’ from its labels in favor of the more malleable term ‘natural’. For a long time, nobody noticed.
After swapping out the key ingredient in its product, Silk didn’t bother to alter its packaging (except to yank the word organic) or the SKU number, giving some customers the impression that the move was deceptive. … Shunning organic also diluted the value of Silk’s brand, which was built upon the idea of health and wholesomeness….
Was it unethical of Silk to stop using organic soy without being more up-front about the change? Well, to begin, those who think that only organic agriculture is ethical will believe that the change itself is unethical, nevermind the way the change was(n’t) advertised. But assuming that use of non-organic soy is at least permissible, how should Silk have handled the transition? It’s pretty hard to imagine labels screaming “Now With Non-Organic Soy!” But as Melanie Warner’s article implies, Silk could have signalled the change more subtly by, say, redesigning their package. Of course, it’s not clear that such a change would have resulted in consumers also noticing the change to non-organic soy.
FYI, as I write this, I happen to have sitting on the kitchen counter a container of Silk Original Light Fortified Soy Beverage (I don’t drink it, but another member of my household does). No mention of organic ingredients. Prior to reading Warner’s article, I had already been amused (and had my curiosity aroused) by the claim on the side of the carton that “Silk Light begins with natural soy, grown without genetic engineering right here in North America.” Why would I find that significant? Well, first, it is incredibly rare to find products in a major Canadian grocery store proclaiming themselves to be GM-free. In fact, this is the first time I’ve seen it. I even emailed the grocery chain (Metro) to find out if they have a policy about that. They do not. Second, I’m surprised to see a food producer able to claim (presumably truthfully) that its key ingredient is GM-free without it also being organic. For many purposes (including for many consumer purposes) the two often go hand-in-hand.
Update (Sept. 15, 2010)…
I just found out that this issue does not apply equally across boarders. I’m currently looking at a carton of Original Silk Fortified Soy Beverage — and it is made with organic soybeans. So, here in Canada, the complaint discussed above just doesn’t apply, apparently.