The Surprising Truth About Who’s Really Buying Organic

A new survey of sales trends casts the sector as ‘the face of America.’

(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Apr 21, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The organic business is booming—and not just in places where you might expect.

It’s hardly news that sales of organic products have increased in the past year—the industry has been steadily growing since 2004. Recent stats released by the Organic Trade Association show that 2014 was no different. Organic sales jumped 11.3 percent, while overall growth for the food industry was 3 percent.

But new market analysis by the organization also reveals that organic’s appeal now extends far beyond a certain, um, stereotypical demographic: whatever you want to call the slice of American pie that contains white people listening to NPR while driving to Whole Foods in their Subarus with an “I’m Ready for Hillary” bumper sticker pasted over “HOPE” on the back.

“Our survey shows that organic has turned a corner,” OTA Executive Director Laura Batcha said in a statement. “Organic hasn’t been a niche for some time, and today it is the face of America. The demographics of the organic consumer are not any different than the demographics of America.”

Indeed, the association surveyed more than 1,200 households nationwide and found that those who report buying organic closely hew to the demographic breakdown of the country as a whole. The most recent U.S. Census finds that 72.4 percent of Americans identify as white, 16.4 percent as Hispanic, and 12.6 percent as African American. The OTA survey found that 73 percent of organic buyers in America identify as white, 16 percent as Hispanic, and 14 percent as African American.

As for geography, sales penetration—a measure of active consumers compared with the total potential market—for organic products was highest in New England (87 percent) and the Pacific Northwest (86 percent). No surprises there, but sales penetration in the Mountain West (82 percent) and the South Atlantic (79 percent) was impressive as well—not to mention in what the OTA defines as the “West South Central Region, including the stalwart Republican states of Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Louisiana,” where sales penetration was 75 percent.

“This additional new data prove [organic] doesn’t have regional or partisan boundaries,” Batcha said. As if to underscore the point, the association reports that the top three markets for organic sales growth in 2014 were Salt Lake City, Dallas–Fort Worth, and Phoenix-Tucson.

A Gallup poll conducted last year showed a somewhat more nuanced picture of the market for organic food, one that skews more toward what might be thought of as the typical organic consumer. Those who said that they actively try to include organic foods in their diets were more likely to be younger (18 to 29), to be a Democrat, or to have an annual household income of $75,000 or more.

So while there’s no reason to believe the OTA is in any way distorting its numbers, it appears the organization may be trying to cast its survey results in the rosiest, most post-partisan light—the equivalent of one of those Coke commercials where a racially diverse mix of Americans gather in a backyard off Main Street, USA, for a cookout (except the soda is made from organic cane sugar).

Referring to the association’s home base of Washington, D.C., Batcha said in her statement: “In this most political of towns, it’s nice to talk about something that is non-partisan, and that is today’s organic market. Organic cuts across all regions, all ages, all income groups, all states whether they’re red states or blue states. Organic is the face of America.”

That’s an awful lot of flag waving. The question is, why?

The answer, no doubt, is politics. In working to cast organics as a decidedly nonpolitical issue, appealing to red and blue states alike, the OTA bolsters the case for, say, increasing federal support for organic farms. The recent mega–farm bill, which passed last year after much political wrangling, contained notable provisions for encouraging sustainable agriculture—but those pale in comparison with the subsidies that go toward producing the enormous amounts of corn and other commodity crops that sustain our junk-food culture.

Still, it’s hard not to be impressed with how far organic has come in less than 20 years. Back in 1997, organic food sales totaled around $3.4 billion; last year, they were almost $36 billion.

So can organic continue to grow, becoming less of a niche market and more like a dominant sector able to take on conventional farming and food companies? The upward trend in sales and the broadening demographics suggest that there’s more to come. Or to borrow a phrase that may not resonate with all of organic’s politically diverse consumers: Yes, we can.