Boxing clever

Britain’s best food delivered to your door…let your weekly shop take care of itself and the planet…affordable, ethical and delicious. So runs the marketing hype for national box scheme Abel and Cole –“the greener grocer”.

Box schemes are one of the real success stories of the organic movement. They are a retail invention of go-ahead producers wishing to engage directly with their customers in an efficient, local and sustainable manner. But as box schemes – both nationally and locally – power ahead, how far have they strayed from these ethical beginnings and are they increasingly being hijacked by national retail companies at least one step removed from muddy boots organic producers?

In its latest Organic Market Report (2007) the Soil Association (SA) trumpets the growth of retail box schemes as outstripping the organic growth of even the biggest supermarkets. In 2006, says the report, organic retail sales through box and mail order sales grew by some 53% from £95 million to £146 million.

Says SA food and farming director Helen Browning – “ More and more people want to buy locally-grown, seasonal, unprocessed, organic food that also delivers a fair price to the farmer and grower…organic box schemes reflect a growing grassroots movement that links everyday food choice to environmental action”.

The biggest market growth last year though was in non-producer owned schemes which shot up by 93% from £45 million to £86 million. With this performance the proportion of organic sales made through retailer-owned box schemes has overtaken that made through producer-owned schemes for the first time. Nearly 60% of the organic box scheme market is now in the hands of non-producers. It is a figure set to get even larger as national schemes hoover up new and old box scheme customers.

Against the backdrop of these market trends, at The Organic Research Centre – Elm Farm, we’ve been taking a snapshot survey of the health and attitude of producer/retailer box schemes. To us they represent an ideal model of local, sustainable food webs, so important for future, low energy economies.

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