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Can multicriteria assessment tools help build trust into organic products?

Bernhard Freyer, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU)
Jim Bingen, Michigan State University, USA
Rebecca Paxton, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU)


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In a continuously expanding, globalizing, and industrializing organic market, organic consumers confront increasing complexity in organic product representation, labeling, and information that challenges how they build trust in organic products. We present a conceptual framework to analyze how consumers might build and practice trust in the organic agrifood chain. We asked specifically about the role of multicriteria assessment tools (MCATs) for trust building. We identified three consumer trust types: uninformed trust in labels (type 1); informed trust in extensive information, control, and certification (type 2); and informed and engaged trust in forms of close farmer–consumer relationships (type 3). Three concepts of “reflexivity”—unreflective, reflective, self-reflective—are used to explain how these three consumer trust types are operating. We see MCATs as tools accepted and applied mainly by the informed and reflective type. We further examined how reflexivity about two aspects—ethics and systems thinking—in the context of the organic agrifood chain can affect how people trust. Hedonistic, materialistic-oriented consumers might not care about MCATs to deepen their trust in organic, while anthropocentric-oriented consumers were identified as those applying MCATs; eco-centric and holistic-oriented consumers perceive MCATs more as a confinement that limits their self-reflexive and holistic understanding of organic. Awareness of, and interest in, systems thinking by unreflective and uninformed consumer trust types is rather limited; any MCAT is therefore without relevance. The reflective and informed consumer trust type uses a bundle of systems thinking methodologies, and in this context, MCATs would serve as an orientation. The self-reflective, informed, and engaged consumer trust type applies systems theory to learn how to become independent and to better learn how to protect against power interventions; e.g., from industries into the local agrofood chain system. MCATs might play a role, however, would be seen critically because of the high degree of self-determination of this type. The unreflective consumer type will not ask for any governance process or related MCAT because they are not sensitized for any bottom-up processes in the agrofood chain. The reflective consumer, however, appreciates more transparency and participation, and would welcome in this context any MCAT that supports more voice for the consumer. The self-reflective consumer who asks for independence and full voice in creating the relation to farmers would at least develop their own MCAT in collaboration with the processors and farmers. Single, double, and triple loop learning are seen as the learning processes that take place when a consumer engages reflexively in the organic agrifood chain. The uninformed consumer type is a single loop learner not heavily interested in MCATs, while the informed is a double loop learner, where MCAT might be a useful tool, and the triple loop learner is seen as the consumer type being engaged in the agrofood chain and would ideally develop their own MCAT. We conclude that MCATs are not relevant for the uninformed consumer to build trust, while the informed consumer would like to apply a predefined MCAT as a tool that allows proof if they can trust in the organic chain. The informed and engaged consumer mostly would not be interested in predefined MCATs, but in some cases might develop their own together with their partners. Their concept of trust is based mainly on being an active partner in the organic agrofood chain and knowing the system by their own experience and contributions. Further theoretical elaboration and empirical research is needed to validate these conceptual reflections on consumer trust.

Key words

ethics; governance; multicriteria assessment tools; organic farming; reflexivity; reflectivity; systems thinking; trust

Copyright © 2014 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087