GREEN IDEAL:
Why the organic trend is less about them and more about me 

AS THE ORGANIC TREND SPREADS ACROSS WESTERN MARKETS, WHAT FUELS THE MOVEMENT IS NOT SO MUCH A CONCERN FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AS THE EFFECTS OF OUR EGO’S GOLDEN AGE. 

Maybe he had a feeling for what is about to come upon the Danish people, maybe he brought it upon them himself, one harvest fresh, homegrown full wooden vegetable box at a time.

In 2009, TIME magazine named Thomas Harttung amongst its «Heroes for the Environment». The Danish farmer and entrepreneur was portrayed as having a unique new approach to tackling the world’s eating habits. The organic food delivery service «Aarstiderne» he co-founded in 1999 on his farm in Barritskov had sprung from supplying a hundred mostly local customers to over 45,000 around Denmark ten years later while keeping sustainable. Harttung was reaping the Zeitgeist.

By 2017, «Aarstiderne» is amidst a booming market that has outgrown the upcycled alternative Copenhagen districts. With 8.4 percent organic market share and imports growing by 24 percent according to Statistics Denmark, the Nordic country is speeding into a future of ecological omnipresence, spearheading a trend increasingly subduing western markets. Across Europe and North America, thousands of brands, restaurants and delivery services have adopted the organic dogma at the heart of their business models.

A recent report issued by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) and IFOAM Organics International in Switzerland shows that 90 percent of organic food and drink sales in 2015 were made in North America and Europe, creating a market value of 75 billion euros, compared to 55 billion only two years earlier. In the US, the biggest organic single economy, the market is set to grow a total of 14 percent between 2013 to 2018 alone, according to the Organic Food Market Forecast.

Once an ideological statement, going organic is becoming the new norm. And yet, despite the economy taking great initiative in expanding it, what drives the movement is beyond the health, environmental or quality concerns and based at the very roots of contemporary western culture. Being a «green» consumer makes people feel ethical and responsible in an age of powerlessness towards sprawling global issues. This feeds into the subconscious longing to increasingly self-optimize in life and maximize potential as a self-testimony. Galvanized by the ever-driven millennials, the ambition of becoming better has jumped from the physical to the psychological, making the organic trend the latest craze.

 

IMPROVE, ASSESS, IMPROVE

The millennials are often dubbed a generation fragile, yet narcissistic, fame-obsessed, but empowered by technology. And even though social media should make them apathetically staring at screens all day long, they are academic overachievers. And they are motivated: A survey by the market research blog Field Agent showed that at the end of 2014, 94 percent of US millennials were committed to making personal improvements, more than any other generation. Rather a modern term, «to self-optimize» is to make more of oneself, physically, socially, mentally. Whether this is losing weight, learning mandarin or mastering Grand Theft Auto. Pursuing goals of self-development has been shown to create greater satisfaction in life by independent studies conducted ever since the 1950s – now millennials have seized this process.

«Identity becomes reflexive, so life becomes a project», says Søren Askegaard, professor for sociology at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, «You become somewhat individual in your own right». Askegaard started researching the notion of self-optimization around the year 2000, drawn in by cosmetic plastic surgery suddenly becoming normal in Denmark, up to that point a «completely unthinkable thing for ordinary people», as he says. But in the last twenty years, he claims people have increasingly switched off the autopilot and are trying to build life according to personalized principles they make. «It is like we realized the world is not running out there on rail tracks. It is something that we can mold and recreate – like ourselves.» Self-optimization efforts aim at building a unique identity. It resembles a role-play avatar: The more distinctive features we have and the more skilful we are, the higher our status in the society game.

Yet, westerners have found a way around burdening the daily pre-breakfast treadmill or hitting the dictionary and still optimize: ethical consumption. Being a responsible shopper has become a conventionalist way of feeling good and embedding philanthropy while staying in the comfort zone. For millennials, environmental activism is shopping at the same supermarket, but in the organic aisle. A global study conducted by the Nielsen Company in 2015 shows that sustainability amongst millennials is a priority, with 75 percent of respondents willing to pay more for ecological products. And once they are hooked on a brand, they are likely to stay loyal, as 60 percent of participants in a 2015 study of millennial consumer trends prove. Pinning this behaviour to a new found environmental enlightenment however is a delusory dash to conclusions. Switzerland and Denmark for example may hold the top two places in terms of organic consumption per capita, but at the same time their citizens are global leaders in individual waste output, with the US coming in third.

To Askegaard, the growing fusion of what we consume and who we are is a result of post-war cultural explosion: «It has become a class-based practice. Buying organic is not just bragging to other people, it is just as much, if not more, about communicating to ourselves that this is the kind of person that we are.» This goes largely with Bourdieu’s theory of «cultural capital», raised back in 1984. The French sociologist noted that buying ethical products is not simply an expression of financial resources, but a sign of status. With organic goods being depicted as the healthy option while environment friendly, green shopping decisions make us feel holistic and demonstrating responsibility, having optimized yet just a little bit more.

 

FEEL GOOD NET, FEEL BAD NET

With the world getting more interconnected, showing off status is easier than ever. Social media takes a great role in tying the twigs of the organic trend with the quest for identity. It is here in the heartland of where millennials are most accessible that the new green awareness is being paraded around and advocated for as the must-have lifestyle. Profiling European internet use, a 2017 Eurostat survey shows 88 percent of 16-24 year olds and 65 percent between 25-54 using social networks such as Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat. Nearly identical numbers were published by the Pew Research Centre for the US. Creating the image of a distinctive virtual persona has become an essential part of staying in the loop, and with a distinctive persona comes distinctive output.

            Asta Just Schack’s Instagram is filled with colourful plates of goodness. Plant-based and organic dishes, photographed in smooth light and a rustic backdrop create the basic, yet graceful feel of consideration. The young Dane is just building up her online portfolio, mainly to promote her upcoming cook book. But having an impact feels special, she says. «It’s good to have an influence. My friends get inspired and even my dad went from eating meat to becoming vegan.»

Schack is a prime example of how the organic movement spreads ideologically online and affects its growth offline: Inspired by content on the idea sharing platform Pinterest, Schack buys, cooks and reposts her own creations to social media. By doing so, she optimizes in a whole arsenal of attributes: getting better at cooking, eating healthily and ecologically before collecting online praise in the end. «The whole process and response I get just makes me happy», she says. By far, she is not the only one that sees her mood affected with virtual communities offering a new chance for spotlight.

As social network sites and communities expand, so does online peer influence, which could also be dubbed peer pressure. The theory behind this goes back to the 1930s when the psychological «social proof» concept was introduced. It says that in decision making, people look at those around them. In social media this has become an established marketing tool, as brands pay «influencers» – social media stars – to advertise by including products in their daily social output.

 

COMMUNITY OF THE GOOD

With the organic trend being outlived in newsfeeds, picture walls and status updates across the hemispheres, Askegaard is saying that this has led to more subconscious competition: «The web 2.0 has tremendously enlarged our potential for looking in mirrors and looking at other people's mirrors.» Seeing someone showing off their lifestyle can create desire, as Askegaard says. «We get these standards for comparison, like: ‘Hey, why am I not hanging out in Hawaii? Other people seem to do that all the time’ – Which obviously is not true.»

Constantly weighing up our lives to what we see affects us, for better or for worse. Studies have shown that seeing pictures of someone who has lost weight can be inspirational and motivational. A 2015 survey by the Copenhagen based Happiness Research Institute on the other hand unmasks Facebook for leading a high number of respondents to feeling envious towards other people’s shared experiences, success or happiness. As a result, jealousy increases ambition to get better in some way – and because we have come to identify ethical consumption with responsible behaviour, next time we go shopping, we may just grab the fair-trade squash and leave the shop feeling like a better person.

But the pressure on social media is not constricted to the virtual world, according to Karin Østergaard, a researcher with the «Global Nutrition & Health» program at VIA University College in Aarhus. An expert in sustainable and organic food, Østergaard says that following the organic trend helps feeling responsible and as part of a community: «If you are a responsible consumer, then you buy organic. It has this totally positive image. If you carry a litre of milk and it says ‘organic’, you will just be considered more responsible. And lots of people like that.»

Ethical consumption is understood by researchers as a key to how individuals can address social and ecological problems. But the lifted feeling consumers get when buying healthful products is more one of cultural distinction and status, as a team of Canadian researchers established in 2010. Comparing food practices of families in a poor and an upper middle-class district of Toronto, they found a sentiment of superiority among the richer families when eating ethical produce. To Østergaard, this is a plain game of ego: «Maybe the taste of the expensive bread compared to a cheap one is not that different, but it's very important when you invite people that they know where it comes from.» Being seen a responsible person is a form of self-optimizing to a higher level of status and with shops expanding their organic offer, this has become easier than ever.

 

BACK TO THE ME

Peer influence is however not the only factor that triggers motivation for getting better and embarking on the organic vessel to achieve that. Looming over Europe and the US, the ongoing change in political sentiments has shown that the time of relying on the big collective is gone, having shifted to the power of the individual.

Kenneth Højgaard, chef at the Copenhagen House of Food, an organisation tasked with improving the quality of public meals in Denmark, sees this shift also manifesting in the country’s kitchens. He says by cooking organic food, people gain self-worth: «They are proud of the food they make because they made it from scratch. It's a part of you. You don't become proud of food that you take out of a plastic bag and reheat. That's not your food.»

The notion of self-optimizing to gain self-reliance is the reaction to a growing feeling of mistrust sweeping western societies. In the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, 53 percent of participants said the system has failed them – a feeling especially strengthened by the aftermath of the 2008 Great Recession, when millions of jobs were lost across the globe. The dissolvement of trust has resulted in a blatant indifference towards freedom of speech and democracy among young Americans and Europeans.

As the global elite and their apparent failure in providing social stability increasingly widens the gap felt in society, we need to look at neoliberalism for causes. It is here that self-optimization has sprouted and solemnly spread out through the values of the west. It has led humans from living in entrepreneurial communities to creating the entrepreneurial self. Going along with wider social transformations enchanting populations that have their basic needs covered, we have embraced competition, the dogma of neoliberalism, as a basic trait. And as Askegaard claims, this has also shifted trust and influence from the institution to the individual's experience: «What we see is a move to biography. Somebody actually lived or did something and so they are suddenly an expert in that process. For example: 'I lost 30 kilos, so I now am an expert in weight loss' – Authority has been moved to somewhere else.“ To the extend, as he says, that people are even less likely to trust their doctors.

Authority has moved to thousands of Instagramers and bloggers like Asta Just Schack, who  proclaim the organic diet as the savoir-vivre of the 21. century and who see a whole society of onliners and offliners increasingly joining the trend. Whether motivated by health reasons, environmental concerns or a plain crave for status and belonging – beneath these top-layer arguments lie the same ambitions: being better, evolving, developing, self-optimizing. And with western societies becoming more individualistic and people more self-reliant, this notion of upgrading to a better self is unlikely to fade into obscurity, but rather become a social practice. Joining the organic trend is just the most contemporary form of living it up, with side effects arguably kind to the planet.