Natural living comes naturally to Swedes

While organic food and "green" products are gradually catching on among wealthier, educated people around the globe, natural living has long been the norm across Europe's Nordic region.

“The Nordic countries tend to have a broader, more general consciousness of environmental issues than in other European countries,” said Stockholm University researcher Hans Rämö, who has studied Swedish attitudes to organic food and environmentally friendly products.

“While more educated classes are very conscious in places like the US, Britain and Germany, less educated people do not tend to have the same understanding of environmental issues there,” he told AFP, adding that in Scandinavia “almost everyone” is aware of these issues.

Wandering through the average grocery store in Stockholm you pass shelf after shelf of organic dairy products, eggs, meat, vegetables, coffee, tea, honey, jam, rice and pasta, all wrapped in bio-degradable packaging and usually sporting price tags only slightly higher than those on “regular” products.

The fact that organic produce and environmentally friendly household items are sold in mainstream grocery stores across the region has perhaps contributed to their widespread use.

“In other countries you often have to go to special stores for organic products and actively seek out these products,” said Kjell Ivarsson, a researcher with the Federation of Swedish Farmers, insisting that accessibility had played an important part in spreading the nature-friendly bug in the north.

Despite the broad availability, only about 2.0 percent of all food and beverages sold in Sweden are organic, but this still places the country at the high end of the global average of one to two percent.

A full 12.8 percent of all egg sales and 7.6 percent of milk sales in the country were, however, organic in 2004, according to numbers from the national statistics agency, while about 20 percent of all farmland in Sweden has been reserved for organic production.

“We’re one of the countries that rank the highest in Europe when it comes to organic production,” Ivarsson told AFP.

Sweden’s neighbours too can boast widespread environmental awareness. Nearly 24 percent of Danes said in 2004 that they prioritized environmentally friendly products, and the Coop supermarket chain there offers 1,289 organic products.

Organic produce has caught on more slowly in Norway, but the country has distinguished itself in other ways. At the beginning of this year, Oslo for instance implemented a new tax on each carton of milk and juice to help increase their recycling rate from today’s 65 percent to 95 percent.

And Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon is currently considering launching organic production on the royal family farm Skaugum.

But while the countries of the north have worked hard to maintain their images as socially and environmentally conscious, interest among consumers has dwindled in recent years.

In Denmark, the number of people who say they prefer buying organic produce slipped from 31.9 percent in 2000 to only 22.4 percent in 2004, according to numbers from the AIM Nielsen institute.

Interest has also waned slightly in Sweden.

“Some might take it for granted now that we’ve done what we need to do and that they no longer need to think about it,” Rämö said, insisting that taking care of the environment “is like cleaning your house. It’s not something that you can do just once and get it over with”.

And when it comes to buying fair trade products, which conform to rules aimed at protecting workers, the whole region is lagging behind.

“Fair trade is much, much bigger in Britain, Switzerland, the Netherlands and in Germany,” said Linda Ålrud, the purchasing manager for Sackeus, Sweden’s largest provider of fair trade products.

One explanation, Ålrud said, could be that people raised in the social democratic welfare states of the north “expect society to take responsibility for those who need help and are not as inclined to do something about it ourselves as in other countries where individuals’ actions have been viewed as more important.”