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Food: The World's Most Purpose-Driven Industry?

With purpose work, as with bonfires, you can only keep adding fuel for so long.  Sooner or later, the kindling has to catch.

Over the past few years we have seen many individual companies shift their strategy to incorporate  more purpose-driven thinking, but there’s only one industry where that seems to be the norm and not the exception: food.

From retailers like Kroger (with their rapidly expanding Simple Truth line of natural and organic products) to manufacturers like General Mills (which has reformulated Yoplait to have more protein and less sugar, and Progresso Soups to use antibiotic-free chicken; even Trix cereal will be free of artificial colors and flavors by the end of the year), to fast food chains like McDonald’s (which has now shifted more than a third of its coffee purchases to Fair Trade sources), the food industry from top to bottom seems to have heeded the call to sustainability and has a steadily glowing pyre of purpose embers deep at its core.

This has taken years and years to develop.  For a long time, pioneers like Whole Foods Market were mere voices in the wilderness, launching noble but obscure campaigns for things like sustainable fisheries, ethical meat production, and itinerant farm workers’ health care; the world of Big Food just laughed, or worse yet ignored them altogether.

But somewhere along the line something changed, something significant.  Perhaps it was the 21st Century surge in food allergies, which seems to have engendered a level of response that all of the big (but more isolated) food scares of the past – DDT, cyclamates, mad cow disease, etc.) – did not.  Perhaps it was the confluence of innovation and venture capital both hitting the food industry at once.  Perhaps it was another manifestation of shifting demographics and the influence of the Millennial Mindset.  Perhaps it was unexpected backlash from the manipulative way that Big Food handled the challenges to GMO labeling.  And dare we even think it, could it have been a rare instance of common sense actually prevailing?

Whatever the reasons, in the decades-long fight of the health food store hippies, the wacky macrobiotic crowd, the back-to-the-landers, the antivivisectionists, the tofu zealots and the conscious capitalists, the tide of battle has finally turned.  And that was very much in evidence at the recent Natural Products Expo West trade show in Anaheim, as a record 80,000 people and 3,100 exhibitors gathered to showcase all that is good and purposeful in the world of food today.  Consider:

  • The keynote address was delivered by Denise Morrison, CEO of Campbell Soup (a company which, just a few short years ago, would have been an outcast at Expo West). “We do not want to be just another big food company,” she told the crowd. “We aspire to be the biggest small food company—a company with the entrepreneurial spirit, innovation and transparency of a startup and the scale to make real food safe, affordable and accessible to all people.”  She discussed why Campbell had bought natural foods companies Plum Organics, Bolthouse Farms and Garden Fresh Gourmet; why it was removing artificial ingredients from its products and BPA from its can liners; and why it became the first Big Food company to commit to voluntary labeling of GMOs.

  • In addition to the usual presence of organic baby food companies like Earth’s Best, Ella’s Kitchen, Plum, and Happy Baby, both Gerber and Beech-Nut had booths at Expo West to showcase their new organic lines.

  • The Soulfull Project, a Campbell-funded B Corp that makes hot cereal cups and employs a 1-for-1 model (donating a cup to a food bank for every one sold), was one of the show’s hot topics.Just before the show opened, Back to the Roots announced that its organic cereals had been chosen to replace Kellogg’s for 1.1 million New York City schoolchildren.

  • One of the show’s coveted “Nexty Awards” went to Farmhouse Culture, which makes probiotic blended chips – and is funded in part by General Mills’ 301 brand elevator.Among the other recent investments 301 has made are two companies whose very products lines are designed to help fight global warming and protect animal rights: Beyond Meat – the hot meat alternative company – and Kite Hill – which is going national with its remarkable dairy-free cheeses and yogurts.

  • Another Nexty Award went to Wize Monkey, which is making sustainable teas with leaves that are pruned from coffee plants (yes, coffee leaf tea)! during the off-season of bean harvesting.

  • Competitors came together at Expo West to form several coalitions – such as The Climate Collaborative – to use the power of many to fight for important societal issues.

All in all, a very impressive -- and very inspirational -- show.

Of course, not every industry has the ubiquity of food, nor the benefit of such direct alignment between product and purpose, nor, for that matter, the benefit of being on the tail end of a long period of unprincipled profiteering by most of its members (Fruity Pebbles, anyone?).  But the leaders of the food industry have also done a lot of things right – collaboration, telling their stories through packaging, translating customer feedback into product innovation – to build momentum, attract talented people, and position their industry as a true leader in the purpose movement.

So which industry is next?  Are you reading this Carlos Ghosn of Renault?  JC Curleigh of Levi Strauss?  Jerry Stritzke of REI?  You’ve done some great work already; now let’s see if we can get that kindling to catch.


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