Why are Germans the Leaders in Organic Food and Eco-Energy?

German leader in organic food

Why are Germans the leaders in organic food and eco-energy?

Germans are at the forefront of the environmentally friendly movement. Whether it’s sorting waste, developing eco-energy or organic foods, foreigners coming to Germany have a lot to learn. But why is Germany a leader in organic foods and environmental protection?

In 2015, the organic food market in Germany grew by 11%, generating €8.6 billion. Growth in organic milk sales was even more spectacular, increasing by more than 20%. Flour and oils can now be found in the organic food section. But the main growth engine is the increased organic foods selection at discounters like Aldi or Lidl. Germany is the largest organic foods market in Europe, even though the Swiss, Danish and Austrians have greater per-capita consumption.

When I moved to Germany in 1990, my roommate showed me how to sort my trash. At the time, it was still very easy – just bottles and boxes. A few years later, yellow bags were introduced for plastics and cans. By the time I left Germany in 2013, waste could be sorted into seven different bins:
– for green bottles
– for brown bottles
– for clear bottles
– for paper and cardboard
– yellow bags for plastics and metals
– for biodegradable waste
– and for everything else

This is German precision in all its splendor, and the majority of Germans comply with it. I forgot the deposit on plastic bottles (mineral water, for example) and cans (soda, beer), which must be returned to the store for a €0.25 refund per unit!

As a French, it requires a lot of common sense in order not to spend your whole life in front of the waste bins (does it go here, or there?) and failing miserably. In fact, the practice of sorting waste came to France much later. In June 2014, Le Monde published an article with the headline: “Half of the French do not systematically sort their wastes”.

Why are Germans more often pioneers when it comes to the environment and eating healthily?

I see several reasons for this. Overall, Germans feel a need to protect nature and as a result, they feel better about themselves.

“German Angst”
First of all, Germany is naturally rather pessimistic. It is not fashionable for a German to show any feelings, and even less so to express joy for any success. In the end, the whole world thinks that Germans are unfunny, even depressing. Unfortunately I can’t remember the source, but I remember reading somewhere that Germans have more insurance than other Europeans. The English use the German word “Angst” for fear, to describe a state of high anxiety. I would almost say that many Germans look for reasons to be afraid even when everything is going well.

Don’t fool with nature!
Germans love nature. Heading out with the family on the weekend is more like an expedition than a simple walk. “Wandern“, or walking, is a sport. Germany has walking shoes, a backpack for walking, thermos (for walking), walking maps, etc. I struggled at first, I still don’t like changes in elevation but now I enjoy family walks through the forest, especially when it’s flat!

The impact of ecological disasters and health scares
Chernobyl, Fukushima, the avian flu, mad cow disease, are just some of the many reasons why Germans are more aware of their consumption habits.

The correlation between income and environmental protection
Many studies have shown that consumers’ ecological behaviors are related to their income levels. Germany has a strong economy, and many Germans have enjoyed stable jobs and stable if not increasing incomes for many years now.

In comparison with the United States

I live in a county that promotes waste sorting. We have three bins outside: one for plastic and glass, another for cardboard and paper, and the last one is for everything else. As a good German, I therefore sort my waste. Compared to 2013, I now see my neighbors doing it increasingly more often. However in the United States, recycling remains rather folkloric. There have been many times when I have seen the garbage collectors put everything in the same dumpster!

With a population of 320 million, the United States is the largest market for organic products in the world. However consumption per capita remains lower than the German average. Americans seeking healthy foods shop at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s or Sprouts.

Whole Foods is the Ferrari of organic foods stores with their fantastic stores and excellent products, including fish and meat. But Ferraris are expensive…very expensive! Trader Joe’s has a lot less choice, but the prices are quite reasonable. Unfortunately there are no Sprouts in the Washington region, so I am unable to tell you anything about their pricing and selection.

What can we learn from Germany?

Germans love nature, sort their wastes and consume organic products. But they drive big cars, take airplanes to go on vacation, and import organic potatoes from Egypt! It doesn’t make sense in terms of global warming, does it?

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  • I think it may have something to do with the general education and awareness within German culture

    • Danke Stephan. It’s true that Germans live close to the nature. It starts in Kindergarten, which is not the first year at the Elementary School but the years before. Children are going to field trip in the woods, at a farm, zoo etc…

  • About recycling, it’s fascinating how each culture deals differently with the same problem. Even if I do not know German culture, and I do not doubt their discipline to align to rules, I suppose that it took a lot of public investment in education and infrastructure from German cities to arrive such a successful recycling system. Living and working in Rio de Janeiro on 2013 on the issue, I learned that besides challenging cultural aspects, public sensibilization, and education are primordial and that a local government firmly committed to the cause is mandatory.

    A for the United States, my experience has been very disappointing, the amount of packaging used to present edibles is outrageous. I live in Arlington (VA), there are just two bins, one for trash and another one for recycling but I noticed that people, in general, do not know how to split their waste, and I partly blame them as there are no simple waste management visible communication from the county. On the other hand, have not seemed real concern about sustainability, there is a lot of communication and marketing about it, but I do not sense a real conscientization about the way things and edibles are produced and discarded.

    • Thank you Rocio. Sorry that your comment had to wait for approval. I have actually some issues with the comment moderating system.
      I know Germany for so long that I don’t even remember how long (that would make me look older if I would say!). However, I remember Germans complaining about Paris and France, being so dirty, people throwing trash on the streets, sidewalks etc. That was in the 80’s (ok, that makes me look old…)
      I agree with you about the US. Just give a look at Whole Foods! An organic supermarket with plenty of plastic for fruits and vegetables? What about the carbon print??

  • Interesting article…in my area here (NB, Canada)…we are charged a 10c fee on all bottles and cans (beer, wine, juices, pop (you guys call it soda)…and when we return them we only get 5c back. The only exclusion is dairy…the dairy industry does not participate in the program.

    Garbage is collected weekly in this town. In other towns it happens only every 2nd week.
    If you want to recycle cardboard and plastics, you must take them yourself to a depot location. In my opinion, there is still a lot of room for improvement. The system is not perfect…and varies hugely depending on what city or town you’re in here.

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