In Europe, consumers often associate locally produced and organic food products with higher quality standards (freshness, nutritional value), healthy eating, good taste, cultural values, and more environmentally friendly production methods [1
]. With the increase of consumers’ demand for local produce and organic food in Europe [3
], the land covered by organic farm increased from 7.27 million hectares in 2006 to 11.63 million hectares in 2014 [4
]. Recent estimates indicate that organic agricultural land covers about 43.7 million hectares of land worldwide, and about 26.6% of this is in Europe [4
]. Only in one year (from 2013 to 2014) did the organic agricultural land increase by 2.3%.
According to European Rural Review [3
], typical organic farming practices include “multiannual crop rotation; efficient use of on-site resources; strict limits on the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, livestock antibiotics, food additives and processing aids and other inputs; use of plant and animal species that are resistant to disease and adapted to local conditions; and an absolute prohibition of the use of genetically modified organisms”.
According to Regulation (EC) 834/2007 of the European Commission, the overall principles of organic food production include appropriate design and management of biological processes based on ecological systems using natural resources which are internal to the system; restriction of the use of external inputs; strict limitation of the use of chemically synthesized inputs; adaptation of the rules of organic production taking account of sanitary status, regional differences in climate and local conditions, stages of development and specific husbandry practices [5
Conceptually, sustainability comprises environmental, economic, and social aspects. There is a challenge to have a sustainable food supply due to the increasing world population, urbanization, depletion of resources, as well as spatial and temporal fluctuation in food availability. Therefore, it is important to increase the awareness of consumers of sustainable food production and supply systems. In general, sustainability in the context of sustainable development is defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development [6
] as ‘forms of progress that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs’.
As a part of sustainable development in the agriculture sector, there is integrated farming, which is a method between conventional and organic farming methods. It reinforces the positive influences of agricultural production and reduces negative impacts [7
]. ’Integrated farming makes a vital contribution to sustainable development by adding consideration of economic, ecological and social objectives to the essential business of agricultural food production’ [7
In Sweden, there are requirements for organic farming which are mainly issued by an association known as KRAV. KRAV is an incorporated association with stakeholders representing farmers, processors, consumer, and firms with environmental and animal welfare interests [8
]. KRAV is Sweden’s most well-known environmental label for food and beverages, based on ecological principles with especially high standards for animal welfare, health, social responsibility and climate impact. All KRAV-certified operations have to comply with national laws such as animal welfare and environmental legislation. KRAV standards meet other standards of organic production at European and international levels. For instance, KRAV meets standards in IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) and standards on organic food at the European level such as Regulation (EC) 834/2007, Regulation (EC) 889/2008, Regulation (EC) 1235/2008 [5
In the food sector, an organic label is an indication that the food is produced using organic production methods. The European Union (EU) organic logo can be used together with national or private logos. For instance, Figure 1
presents the EU organic logo and the Sweden organic logo that can be used for organic food products.
The positive attitude towards KRAV has increased more in recent years due to the characteristics such as reliability, expertise, high status and modernity associated with KRAV and, currently, more than 98% Swedes are familiar with KRAV [8
]. This increased attitude towards the KRAV label indicates that many consumers are deciding to purchase more organic food products, because the decision to purchase a product or service depends on consumer behavior [11
]. Although demand for local produces increases and local and organic food sector continues to flourish, further development of the sector still needs effective support [12
]. For instance, many tomato growers in southern Sweden perceive that organic farming is effective, but they need strong support and they are willing to shift to organic farming if adequate technical and professionals support is provided [13
Studying the role of customers’ attitudes to a relationship between environmental knowledge and purchase intention for environmentally sustainable products, Kumar et al. [14
] highlighted that attitudes towards environmentally sustainable products mediate the relationship between environmental knowledge and purchase intention. In the food sector, retailers have the potential to promote the purchase and consumption of environmentally more sustainable products [15
]. In this regard, organic food store brands have contributed to the development of demand for organic products through supermarkets [16
In general, consumers tend to buy food products with good taste and price, that are easily available and convenient to purchase as well as environmental friendly. Although about two out of three Swedes tend to buy environmentally friendly products, more than 90 percent of consumers consider that organic products are expensive [17
]. In addition to reducing the price difference between organic and conventional products, increasing the awareness of consumers about the benefits of organic products is essential to promote the organic product market. Organic agriculture is a process-oriented rather than a product-oriented production system. Many consumers might find it difficult to understand this concept.
Consumer demand for organic food products in Sweden is increasing sharply. For instance, only in 2015, about 1600 new KRAV-labeled items entered the Swedish market and the market for organic food increased by 39% in the same year [5
]. This growth could have been more if it had not been hampered by shortage of raw materials supply. Supplying adequate organic raw materials to the food industry is becoming a challenge in Sweden. Another challenge noticed is the risk of fraud with KRAV label, indicating the need for strong supervision of the system.
In relation to organic food consumption and sustainability issues, there is the consumer group LOHAS (Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability) in Sweden which has a strong positive attitude towards KRAV. Understanding the characteristics of these consumers enables us to understand the expectations of Swedish organic food consumers. The size of LOHAS-consumers interested in organic food (and often willing to pay more for organic food) has increased from 27% of Swedes in 2005 to 38% in 2015 [8
]. A socio-demographic based assessment of LOHAS [8
] also indicated that typical LOHAS consumers are characterized as women between 35 and 60 years of age, have an above-average income, and have a higher level of education than Swedish people in general. LOHAS is becoming a trend in mostly western countries and is spreading to other parts of world, with about 100 million consumers worldwide [18
]. In Europe, the LOHAS consumers group makes up approximately 20% of the European population [18
]. This indicates that the LOHAS consumer group could have an influence on the future development of organic food production in Europe and the rest of the world.
Prior to buying a product or service, a consumer searches for information relevant to making a purchase decision [11
]. Different sources of information such as the Web, coworkers, and consumer magazines can be used for this purpose. New innovations in information technology and means of communication contribute to the increasing scope of marketing organic food. In this regard, food companies dealing with organic food items indicate that communication with consumers is important, and currently they use different means including social media such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram etc. These forums are especially important when launching new KRAV-certified products in Sweden.
The study by Irandoust [19
] on Swedish consumers pointed out some factors on which consumer’s choice for organic food depends: perceived benefits of organic food in terms of environment, health, and quality; consumer’s perception and attitudes towards labelling system, message framing, and geographical origin of organic produce; high willingness to pay more for organic food; and income level of consumers. Although consumers’ demand for organic food is increasing, there is less knowledge how the Swedish consumers perceive organic food from sustainable food production and food quality point of view.
The main objective of the current study was to analyze the perception of consumers in Sweden of sustainable food production in relation to organic food production and consumption, food quality as well as food purchasing decisions. This enables us to increase the understanding about consumers’ attitudes towards organic food and sustainable food production discourse. It supports the identification of the roles consumers can play to promote sustainable food supply chains with improved quality, availability, and safety of organic food in particular and all food items in general.
This study was aimed at identifying the major behaviors and expectations of food consumers in Sweden (in relation to organic food production and consumption) and using the results to increase the satisfaction of organic food consumers by improving the value and quality of organic food production, processing, and supply. From the literature review, it was noticed that consumers’ demand for organic food products in Sweden is increasing sharply. Following this increased demand for organic food, some challenges are noticeably apparrent: difficulty in supplying adequate organic raw materials to food industry, and the risk of fraud with the food labeling system indicating the need of strong supervision of the system.
From the survey-based analysis, about 72% of total participants have the perception that organic food production method is more sustainable than conventional methods. Female consumers have strong attitudes towards organic production method. However, it was noticed that consumers (including those who have university education) might find it difficult to understand the concept of organic agriculture and to judge whether organic or conventional farming is more sustainable. Therefore, more research and education is required to generate more understanding on sustainability and organic production concepts.
Considering all participants, consumers’ judgment on food quality indicated that regionality, sustainable way of production and organic production are the most important parameters to characterize the food as high quality. On the other hand, product uniformity, appearance, and price were found to be less important parameters relatively in deciding the quality of food. The same pattern was noticed for food buying decisions, indicating that buying decision and food quality are highly related with Pearson’s correlation coefficient of r = 0.99. Price and nutritional value were ranked by participants to be less important in comparison to regionality, sustainable way of production, and organic production parameters. This indicates that consumers have a high willingness to pay more for organic food, regional food, and food produced in more sustainable way and this supports the study results by Irandoust (2016) on Swedish food consumers. Food retailers can use these results to increase the satisfaction of organic food consumers.
In general, the results of this study could be used by different actors along the food supply chain to improve the quality of organic food production, processing, and supply. In order to address the increasing demand of organic food in Sweden and challenges accompanying this increasing trend, it is important to increase the supply of more traceable organic food. The study results could also have input for food related policy issues.