Back in 2006, Sir Jonathon Porritt gave the keynote address at the inaugural National Health Store Conference. Towards the end of his talk he said something striking and prescient: “If you, as health food retailers, can somehow become the places that marry personal health with planetary health, you really will be onto something.”
Pronounced shift in priorities
The comment came back to me recently when the market intelligence analyst Innova reported that, for the first time, planetary health has overtaken personal health as consumers’ top global concern. For several years Innova’s annual Top 10 Trends has been headed by issues around transparency and consumer trust. In 2022, they zeroed in on environmental issues, revealing a pronounced shift in people’s concerns about the the state of the planet. This echoes wider changes in consumer priorities (in essence, what people think really matters in their lives) observed in other recent surveys, and suggests we are at a pivotal moment.
My guess is that Jonathon Porritt thought quite carefully about his audience before giving his talk in 2006. He would have known that natural products retailers span a broad spectrum of outlooks and values, and probably also that there was still some rather siloed thinking about health (and health foods) at the time. And although the idea that the health of people and the ecosystems that support life on Earth are indivisible has long been embedded in organic thinking, it had far less currency in other parts of the health food community at the time.
Today, the simpler expression of this concept – ‘healthy planet, healthy people’ – resonates powerfully and much more widely. With climate consciousness the defining feature of our times, the opportunity for health stores that Jonathan Porritt identified in the mid noughties is bigger than ever. To maximise that opportunity, store offer (more organic, biodiversity-friendly food and products), sourcing policy (high transparency) and business practices (energy and resource efficiency) will need to align with consumers’ changing priorities around climate and the environment.
Health food stores have a proud one hundred year history behind them, evolving out of the early vegetarian movement. They were were founded on progressive thinking, both nutritionally and politically (many vegetarian women in the Victorian era identified as feminists and fought for women’s suffrage, for example). They nurtured the fair trade movement in its early years, creating crucial retail outlets for the new ‘trade not aid’ movement. They continue to offer an unrivalled depth of range of organic food. And over for all of that time, health stores have been in the vanguard of new thinking about health and diet (joined along the way by wholefood stores, natural food and organic supermarkets under the wider umbrella of ‘natural products’ retailers).
“Health stores have the opportunity to evolve again, and renew their relevance for a new generation”
Health stores have the opportunity to evolve again, and renew their relevance for a new generation. By fully embracing – and communicating – a new vision of health based on the interconnectedness of personal health and planetary health, they can set themselves on that new course.
Values-forward independent retailing: Better Food Company, Bristol