Honest communication

Departments - Edible Insights

Customers appreciate specific, clear and truthful messaging in the produce section.

March 1, 2018

Photo: Adobe Stock

No one likes being lied to. When it comes to food and how it’s being grown and produced, consumers have developed a healthy sense of skepticism when it comes to claims of “green-ness.” Greenwashing backlash can be swift and consumer expectations are high. But, when you are doing something good, something that’s right, it’s worth every penny to get that message out to your customers.

You’ve seen them as you do your own grocery shopping — the abundance of labels and packaging advertising different foods as “natural” or “sustainable,” products that claim they are good for you, the earth, or are in some way environmentally friendly. Despite the onslaught of such marketing claims — some true, many not — the demand for organic and natural foods continues to rise. There is still plenty of opportunity to make the most of marketing your authentic sustainable practices.

Local rules

Where your produce is grown makes a huge difference to shoppers. As consumers shop more at local farmers markets, they’ve become attuned to the distance the produce traveled before they buy it. Locally grown produce is in high demand. Now, the term “local” means different things to different people, but if you go by typical farmer’s market standards, food grown within 200 miles of point of sale qualifies. Some markets limit produce sales to within a 50-mile radius. Closer is always better.

If you have a retail customer network that is within a tight radius from your production facility, this message should be one of your topmost marketing priorities. If you package your produce, consider creating special packaging for produce that will be sold within a close radius, to highlight its local origin. If you aren’t packaging or labeling your produce, be sure you’re working with retailers (or with their in-house marketing team) to provide them with good in-store signage that clearly communicates your growing location.

Don’t rule out D2C (direct-to-consumer) marketing. (Editor’s note: Read Leslie’s column on direct-to-consumer marketing here) While your customer might be the retailer, the end consumer needs to understand what makes your produce the better choice. You can’t always rely on your retailers to do your marketing for you. D2C marketing can be a great choice for marketing locally grown produce.


The word on the street is that we need more organic produce, and supply is not meeting demand. Food grown chemical-free may not be important to all consumers, but it is very important to a growing customer segment. Even consumers who ride the fence on organics may prioritize buying certain types of produce that are grown organically or naturally, while still accepting other foods that aren’t. Often these middle-of-the-road consumers are health conscious; but they are choosing some produce based on price alone when they can’t discern special differences. They need more specific information to influence their purchasing decision.

To get the right customer’s attention, you need to make it obvious very quickly that your produce is grown organically or with sustainable growing methods. Get specific about your growing practices and make it clear what you do and don’t use on your crops. This information should be shared on your website of course, as well as your packaging (if you use it), labels, and in-store signage.

If you’re a hydroponic or aeroponic produce grower in the USDA Certified Organic program, you can continue to use the logo. That stamp is meant as a marketing tool to help you make money from your investment in organic growing practices and it has been successful in helping the organic produce market grow.

Maximize the label

As shoppers are better able to navigate traditional advertising slogans and greenwashing, they are turning to a closer inspection of your product label. Now, I realize that if you have labeled or packaged whole produce, there may only be one ingredient. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use the label as an opportunity to describe how the produce was grown, and highlight materials used, or not used, in its production.

Are you using water-saving and water-recycling techniques to grow your crops? Are your practices pollinator friendly? Are you using CHP (combined heat and power) energy management strategies in your greenhouses? Solar power? Do you restrict usage of specific high-profile chemicals — or all synthetic chemicals? Again, all this information should be spelled out on your company website, but it also needs to trickle down to the end consumer in a direct and clear point-of-purchase presentation.

Wrap it up

If you package your produce, are you using easily recyclable, degradable and/or compostable materials? I’m a big recycler and home composter. If I can avoid buying produce in packaging I will — but if it’s unavoidable then I want to make sure the packaging is as low-impact as possible. There is nothing more supremely frustrating to me than to not be able to find clear recycling or composting instructions for the container or wrapper.

In fact, I find that many of the packages sold at “organic” or “natural” food stores are completely void of recycling information. Too often the materials used aren’t recyclable or compostable at all. Using materials that aren’t widely recyclable or require special facilities to sell organically grown produce seems counterproductive, and it sends a conscious message to me as the consumer. If you are using sustainable, recyclable and/or compostable packaging, make it more than clear on the label and provide instructions for disposal. It may not seem like it, but this is an important marketing message you need to communicate. The lack of this information does not inspire confidence.

Don’t make it too hard for customers to listen to what you have to say about what you grow and how you grow it. When it comes to contemporary marketing, your goal is to break through all the static with a message that is specific, clear, and truthful.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies. lesliehalleck.com