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Sustainability runs deep in cereal-making family

Arran Stephens, left, founder and president of Nature's Path Foods Inc., and his daughter Jyoti Stephens, director of human resources and sustainability at the Richmond, B.C., company.

Nature's Path/Nature's Path

Jyoti Stephens was rebellious as a child. The daughter of Arran Stephens, founder and president of Nature's Path Foods Inc. - a manufacturer of organic breakfast foods - she is, unsurprisingly, a life-long vegetarian who eats granola in the morning.

But the 33-year-old didn't dream of working in the family business. Though she baked muffins and pies in the family's vegetarian restaurant from the age of 13, and then did data entry and raw material testing at Nature's Path during summers, she was more enthusiastic about social change than cereal.

"I studied sociology and music," says Ms. Stephens, now the director of human resources and sustainability at the Richmond, B.C., company. "To be honest, I didn't know a lot about the business, other than my father was really passionate about organic food and farming and eating healthy. I started to get really enthused about working in the business around 2000 when I had an incredible mentor in the marketing department who helped me see how business could be a tool for social change."

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Named one of Canada's Greenest Employers, Nature's Path is a family affair. In addition to her dad, Ms. Stephens' mom Ratana Stephens is co-CEO and chief operations officer, and her brother Arjan Stephens is executive vice-president of sales and marketing.

Ms. Stephens is emphatic that family members were not given their positions because they are family. "We're a merit based system. Both my brother and I have MBAs. We've worked from the plant floor up to the positions we're in today, not getting paid more than anyone else.

"Through our employee engagement survey, the fact that we're a family-run business is one of the main reasons that people love working here, and that we're trying to do something bigger by supporting organic agriculture."

Sustainability runs deep in the Stephens family. Growing up on a Vancouver Island berry farm in the 1940s and '50s, Arran Stephens learned sustainable farming techniques from his father, such as putting kelp on the soil and encouraging earthworms.

"My grandfather taught my father to always leave the soil better than you found it, so the ideas of earth stewardship and leaving a legacy are at the root of the company," says Ms. Stephens. "Business is not just about making a livelihood for yourself. My dad passed those values on to my brother and me. You could say that being green is in our DNA."

Social and environmental consciousness are built into everything from product development to performance management to recruiting and training. According to Ms. Stephens, when the company sets its annual goals, they include at least one major sustainability objective. They also discuss sustainability performance in the company's quarterly town halls.

And if an employee barrels up to work in a gas-guzzling SUV?

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"We're non-judgmental," says Ms. Stephens. "Rather than punish bad behaviour, we encourage positive behaviour with fun incentive programs such as 'green my ride' - a way that employees earn money for themselves and a charity through car pooling, taking the bus or riding a bike to work.

"What you want to be doing is to weave it into the fabric of your organization. Why not encourage that and give people the tools to do it?"

The company also provides sustainability training to all team members, taking them through the entire food process from farm to plate.

"What's been most successful for us is moving away from having a sustainability person on the outside telling people what to do, and instead invest sustainability into everyone's job," says Ms. Stephens. After the training, employees are encouraged to take action, perhaps carpooling with a co-worker or tweaking machinery so it uses less plastic.

And every year, employees volunteer to create and maintain an organic garden, culminating in a shared company potluck - a huge harvest chili made with the zucchinis, potatoes, onions and corn grown in the garden.

"There's nothing better when you're having a stressful day than to go out and get your fingers into the soil," says Ms. Stephens. "It gives people a tangible connection with the roots of our business, which is food and farming. And it's a lot of fun."

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Being sustainable is more challenging for Arc'teryx, a North Vancouver-based manufacturer of outdoor apparel and equipment, also named one of Canada's Greenest Employers. CEO Tyler Jordan, 41, says that since the brand is built on improved technical performance, any environmental actions must be measured in the tradeoff on performance.

"Sustainable materials are sometimes available, but generally speaking, recycled polyesters don't have the kind of durability we like to offer in true backcountry products," says Mr. Jordan. "It puts us in an interesting quandary. We're a bunch of outdoor athletes - climbers, skiers, backcountry people, nature lovers, and a lot of us are environmentalists - but we're founded on the philosophy of making better products, so we have a lot of interesting discussions on what's the right thing to do."

While they may have to make tough compromises, that doesn't mean the company's predominately young staff is any less committed to greening the business.

"There's a fair amount of passion when it comes to the environment, and it's important to recognize that passion doesn't necessarily come from management," says Mr. Jordan. "It comes from the employees. A lot of the progress we've made on green issues is from employee driven initiatives where they saw an opportunity to improve things."

Arc'teryx has an internal green committee made up of employee volunteers. The company contributes time and resources, Mr. Jordan explains, but it's an employee led process blessed by management. What he's most proud of is an employee conceived project called "bird's nest" that's both a green and a social initiative. For the second year running, employees volunteered their time to turn obsolete and excess raw materials into several hundred waterproof hooded capes for the homeless in rainy Vancouver.

"Over 100 employees contributed their time to get behind the project and be part of it," says Mr. Jordan. "We provided access to resources, opened up our factory on the weekends and had little training sessions to help those who didn't know how to sew and manufacture. I'm very proud that the employees drove this and used creativity to solve a problem."

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