Thierry Jean is chief executive of PRANA.
Growing up in Brittany, France, I knew where my food came from. I grew up with a garden, and I spent many weekends planting and weeding it. If I wanted a piece of fruit, I picked it from the tree. Decades later in the United States, I worked for years marketing the brands of top global food companies. While I’m thankful for those experiences, their short-term focus proved a stark contrast between how I was raised to respect food and the impact of my choices.
Pesticides, carbon, pollution, wastage and shortage: The food industry inflicts vast and unique problems on people and the planet. At the same time, its tenets of big-scale farming and processed consumables have resulted in a disconnect for consumers between the food they buy, prepare and share at the dinner table and actually knowing where that food comes from, how it’s made and who is making it.
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In short, the food industry is broken.
There is movement to try and curb the environmental impact of food packaging and single-use plastics, through diplomatic channels such as the recent Group of Seven summit, and corporate shifts such as McDonald’s and Starbucks pledging to switch to paper straws. While these are great steps, the truth is that real, impactful change must focus on what’s inside that packaging, how it got there and how we can reconnect people to it.
As the leader of an organic snack company whose mandate is to use our business as a force for social and environmental good, I challenge all others in this $115-billion food industry to embrace this reality: The onus is on us to fix what’s broken.
A closer look at consumer behaviour and food trends lights a clear path for leaders searching for the toolkit. Consumers – whose wide scope of purchasing power is in lockstep with their values of social and environmental responsibility – are voting with their wallets, and sustainability is now a critical issue. They’re also seeking fresh, minimally processed foods with ingredients that promote good health while also craving a deeper understanding of the origins of their food. Consider that Campbell Soup Co. even acknowledged an expected ongoing drop in sales as more people skip cans and bottles for fresher foods.
This isn’t to say there aren’t great examples of companies redefining what business success looks like to ensure the health of more than just their bottom line. But many are still caught up in a short-term vision that puts shareholders first and ignores the march forward toward a sustainable future. We can and must do better, with a triple bottom line approach: people, profits, planet.
PRANA’s triple bottom line approach, employed since its inception in 2005, yielded 40-per-cent sales growth in 2017. I firmly believe that any food company can bridge prosperity and sustainability in this manner, as demonstrated by fellow “B Corp” organizations – companies that have received a private certification that recognizes using business as a force for good. It means focusing on elements such as waste reduction, responsible sourcing, investments in renewable energy, giving back to the community, treating employees well, educating and empowering our consumers – and, most importantly, continually examining the entire supply chain for adjustments and improvements.
This approach absolutely requires a shift in mindset and the courage to challenge the status quo. Doing right by people and the planet means planting a moral compass beside an economic one, to find the enduring balance of a company’s social, environmental and economic impact.
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Patagonia, which sells outdoor clothing and gear, is an organization that is doing it right. As a leading environmentally responsible company, with revenue topping US$500-million each year, it purposefully takes actions that are starkly counter to common business practices – everything from making the results of their R&D accessible to all to encouraging customers to buy less. We can all learn from them.
Implementing a triple bottom line doesn’t evolve overnight. It’s a commitment that must permeate the entire organization, which happens by recruiting and retaining talented employees at all levels who are dedicated to the company’s shared vision.
In the end, this is about food, something every person on Earth has an intimate relationship with. This vast industry can seize the opportunity to lead the charge to change, beginning with repairing the chasm that has opened and connecting people back to the food they eat. Consumers, in turn, can continue to act as agents of change, making responsible choices about the food they buy – and encouraging others to do the same. We have to stop thinking of this as a romantic notion and start taking real action, right now.