The Soil Association was formed in 1946 to create a better world – one where we farm responsibly, eat healthily and live in balance with the environment. We are – and always have been – a movement of people working together to affect change in the food system. Inspired by food citizenship, and subsequent work of our own, we have made a significant step-change in the way that we think of, and crucially involve people in our work. This is just the start of the journey, but we are excited by what being part of the food citizenship movement will mean for us.

Over the past few years, we have started on the food citizenship journey in much of our work including ‘Out to Lunch’ and the Food for Life programme. Previously when it came to talking to the broader public we focused largely on growing the market for organic and therefore driving change by driving transactions: getting more ‘consumers’ to buy more organic products and getting more producers become certified organic, which will ultimately lead to a more sustainable food system.

We realised there was a whole citizen space being missed: an exciting opportunity for many more people to shape the food system beyond consumption. We wanted to explore the opportunity to build our approach, inviting people to move from simply buying organic to buying into organic, investing the symbol with meaning and value beyond informed choice.
But we knew that we couldn’t do this alone. If we wanted to create a genuine, two-way relationship with people, we needed to work with them to set the terms. So, we did.

Our ‘Beyond Consumers’ strategy

Working with The New Citizenship Project, we went back to our founding purpose: asking farmers, growers, producers, supporters, the lay public and our own internal teams the question: How can we, together with people, grow stronger relationships between soil, plant, animals and people? Through a process of desk-research, interviews with staff, a staff-survey and co-creation workshops we identified a core need – to belong; to each other and to the natural world.
A really exciting outcome of the co-creation workshops was when the groups were asked what they could do. All happily exchanged emails, set up conversations and went away inspired to come together to create change. Our learning? That there is so much happening out there already that we can work with and become a platform for people to do stuff, rather than trying to do everything ourselves.

Food citizenship in action

The principles that have emerged from this project have underpinned the development of our major campaigns and broader ways of working. The first project we have applied them to has been our flagship campaign, Organic September. Whilst this has been running across the organic world for over 20 years, it had latterly become very much about offers and promotions, losing the sense of celebration of the movement and its role as a call to arms for the whole industry and staff.

For September 2019, we re-imagined the campaign with new creative and calls to action focused on the message ‘together we can make a world of difference.’ Buying is now just one way that citizens can make a difference – we have also asked people to get involved in growing, food sharing and cooking. Independent shops, as hubs for food enthusiasts and links to wider communities, hosted events to celebrate all things organic, and we’re delighted that Organic September stands in Sainsbury’s provided the opportunity for people to meet organic farmers. Businesses that certify with us hosted shared lunches, events and workshops. We got our staff involved too, with a series of “Soily Skillz” skill-sharing workshops and talks, alongside shared breakfasts and lunches in our Edinburgh and Bristol offices.

We have also been reviewing our communications channels so that people feel a stronger sense of belonging to a movement. A good example of this was during National Allotment Week, where we talked to and with the people who are involved with allotments and growing at ground level. We saw a huge uplift in engagement as a result, with much more user generated content from photos to recipes to celebrity engagement. We’ve rebuilt much of our web content to make sure we are talking with people as citizens and make sure we have one (citizen) voice.

It’s still early days, but it’s so exciting to see tangible changes in engagement, none more so than internally where food citizenship and the principles have become common currency with our two comms teams now working as one.

By shifting the starting point for our relationship with the public, from providing information and advice to creating belonging, we have started to build a more participatory approach, instil the Soil Association symbol with greater meaning, and bring together the organisation’s work to grow the organic market with work to increase membership and income.
We are continuing to work with people to co-create more and deeper ways of participating, together growing the movement for better food and farming.

Clare McDermott
Business Development Director

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