Monday, July 5, 2010

Companies with a Cause

Eden Foods
"The more things change, the more they stay the same."

In the late 1960s, a group of young health nuts launched Eden Foods as a fledgling co-op in Ann Arbor, Mich., with two goals: Find the purest, most vital foods for themselves, and make these products available to everyone else.
What’s changed?
“The best thing about Eden Foods is that we’re doing exactly what we set out to do,” says company Founder and President Michael Potter. “And we’ve gotten pretty good at it.”
So good, in fact, that Eden Foods’ canned beans, soymilks and pastas are regulars on natural products store shelves. In 2009, Eden was selected as the third best company on the planet—and the best food company—by, which ranked businesses based on their social and environmental responsibility record over the past 20 years.

In order to stick to its standards, the company, ironically, has carefully made changes through the years. For example, more than 10 years ago Eden switched to cans that weren’t coated in the chemical bisphenol-A, which has been linked to a host of health issues ranging from infertility to cancer. “We began using BPA-free cans before anyone heard of BPA,” Potter says. Despite the high investment—the company pays 14 percent more for the chemical-free cans—Eden never promoted the BPA-free packaging in order to boost profits. The can swap was simply the right thing to do, Potter says.
Some things at Eden are unlikely to change, however. The company could rightfully adorn its products with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Organic seal, but the emblem is conspicuously absent from Eden labels. “The seal’s not a symbol of the epitome of purity, which is what we pursue. It’s a paperwork system,” Potter says. Eden Foods goes beyond organic regulations, according to Potter, by getting to know all its growers and studying the soil where they plant the crops that end up in Eden products.
Fred Kirschenmann, owner of Kirschenmann Family Farms in Windsor, N.D., attests to the company’s personal and long-term commitment to its farmers. In 1992, Kirschenmann first agreed to grow durum wheat for Eden Foods’ then-new pasta, but heavy moisture that season overwhelmed wheat crops, causing fungus to damage Kirschenmann’s entire yield. He couldn’t make good on supplying durum wheat to Eden. Instead of washing its hands of the deal, Eden agreed to try rye, which happened to be in ample supply at Kirschenmann’s farm. “To me, that’s an indication of the company’s values,” says Kirschenmann, who has grown durum wheat and rye for Eden ever since. “They’re not going to walk away from something. They’re going to find a way to make it work.”
Remaining steadfast to its founding values has not always been a profitable strategy for Eden Foods. At 10 to 50 cents more a can than other brands of organic beans, Eden products don’t necessarily appeal to bottom-line consumers. “As far as being price competitive, it’s hurt us because it costs more to do what we do,” Potter says. “As far as being a principled company that our customers can rely on, it strengthened us.”

Gaia Herbs
"Leading the way in supplements self-policing"

Gaia Herbs is one of the best-kept secrets in supplements aisles, according to a company survey of 2,100 herbal-medicine users. But the finding didn’t please the herbal products manufacturer.
“We don’t really want to be a secret,” says Keri Marshall, ND, medical director of Brevard, N.C.-based Gaia Herbs. “That doesn’t work for us as far as growing the company and supporting the message we’re trying to relay.”
That message emphasizes a long-time commitment to research, sustainability and quality. For example, Gaia endows a botanical chair at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine and contributes to scientific wisdom by supporting studies on herbs like echinacea. The company helped create EarthBottle, a plant-based packaging material for supplements and body-care products. Gaia also grows 40 to 50 crops a year on a 250-acre organic farm in western North Carolina, and has supported an 800-acre botanical sanctuary and medicinal plant research farm in Costa Rica.
But what really sets Gaia apart from other herbal supplements companies is its traceability and transparency efforts. Marshall said after the company discovered that 83 percent of the consumer-survey respondents said they prefer products that offer traceability, “we scratched our heads and thought of what we can do to show people that we have nothing to hide.”
The answer: MeetYourHerbs. As the industry’s first traceability program, MeetYourHerbs allows consumers to type a product identification number into Gaia’s website ( or mobile application, and track the geographical source and potency of ingredients, check the genus and species of plants used, study purity testing results and more.
“People also will be able to view the Certificate of Compliance, which is our internal regulatory control that our labs have to sign off on for every batch of every product that goes through,” Marshall says. The check ensures that all Gaia products are free of heavy-metal toxicity and pesticides, and are within acceptable limits for bacteria, molds and yeast.
“We were already doing these things [before MeetYourHerbs], but we want people to have that empowerment and education and proof of what we’re doing,” Marshall says.
That effort hasn’t gone unnoticed—the American Herbal Product Association chose Gaia for the 2010 Herbal Industry Leader award. “When the committee that recommends award winners to the [AHPA] board of trustees discussed why Gaia should be honored as a leader in the herbal industry, the reasons fell into three categories: commitment to research, commitment to sustainability and commitment to quality,” says AHPA President Michael McGuffin. “In each of these areas, Gaia Herbs has provided leadership in moving the industry forward above and beyond normal business practices.”

Nature's Path
"A healthy planet is as much of a priority as healthy food"
Nature’s Path was founded on the principle that nutritious foods don’t have to be boring and tasteless. A quarter-century later, the company is now proving that sustainability doesn’t have to be tedious and expensive.
The Canadian manufacturer of organic cereal, granola, bars, cookies, waffles and baking mixes was one of the first companies to sign onto the Food Trade Sustainability Leadership Association’s Declaration of Sustainability to promote sustainable practices in the food industry. Over the years, Nature’s Path’s green initiatives have included everything from retrofitting lighting at all its facilities and reducing packaging to working with colleges on a technology to cut the amount of natural gas used by the company’s ovens. Employees get a $1,000 subsidy toward the purchase of a hybrid vehicle, and the company has even developed a system to capture the condensate in its manufacturing plants and reuse it in washing equipment.
“We’re living in an increasingly resource-restrained world,” says Jyoti Stephens, Nature’s Path’s director of sustainability and stewardship. “As a company striving to make a positive impact, [the initiatives] are just core to who we are.”
Stephens, daughter of founder Arran Stephens, consults with Nature’s Path’s 350 employees to further the company’s goal of developing and sustaining organic agriculture as well as minimizing its carbon footprint. Staff suggestions the company has implemented include:
  • An experimental green roof on the headquarters building
  • Zero-waste certification this year and complete carbon neutrality by 2020
  • A worker-managed organic garden and compost program
  • Donation of 1 percent of sales from Nature’s Path EnviroKidz line to species and habitat conservation programs worldwide
  • $25,000 grants this year to two U.S. nonprofit organizations to establish organic gardens for communities and people in need
The results of Nature’s Path’s sustainability efforts read like an environmental statistician’s dream. The company says its new, smaller eco-pacs—cereal packages with a block bottom that can stand on shelves and are recyclable—save 825,540 gallons of wastewater, 437 tons of paperboard, 7,464 million BTUs of energy and 1.4 million pounds of carbon dioxide. Nature’s Path’s new, smaller granola boxes conserve more than 34 tons of cardboard and 65 tons of paperboard, and its reduced-size granola-bar boxes save 472,000 gallons of water and 50 tons of waste.
But what does a company’s carbon footprint have to do with its customers? Plenty, says Debby Swoboda, a Stuart, Fla.-based retail marketing consultant and founder of “If I’m wondering whether to buy this cornflake or that cornflake, which do I choose?” she says. “I think a lot of people are interested in sustainability, and sharing the company’s story can push them over.”

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