Bioneers 2010: Gary Hirshberg Explains How To Scale Up Sustainable Foods


Photo via edni via Flickr Creative Commons

Gary Hirshberg is the CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farms, an organic yogurt company, advocates that it is possible for businesses to be part of the solution when it comes to sustainability. It's been a point he's successfully lived out through his company for years, and at Bioneers he made the point that it is possible to scale up organic foods, feeding the masses while staying sustainable. It's a contentious point and one of hot debate among, well, most anyone, but during his talk he landed on five essential elements of making organic mainstream. We're big fans of how Stonyfield Farms is run. The company puts sustainability before profits every single time. But the best part is the profits are never sacrificed -- the business is growing hand over first because it is run with the environment as a priority.

At this year's Bioneers, Hirshberg gave a presentation highlighting that it's often considered impossible to be a big business and have a minimal environmental footprint. But he countered that notion with examples of how Stonyfield Farms has zero sludge from its wastewater facility since it coughed up the extra $600,000 it would take to install an anerobic facility instead of a traditional wastewater facility. They earned their money back in just the first 9 months, in addition to the benefit of zero waste. Also, the company is able to support 1,750 organic farmers through their milk purchases, and fair-wage co-ops in their banana and sugar purchases. The fact that the company was able to create 46 new jobs while every one of their non-organic competitors had to lay off workers during the recession emphasized that sustainable practices are profitable for both business and nature.

But perhaps the biggest point that Hirshberg wanted to drive home is that this type of business practice is scalable -- it doesn't have to be just the small businesses that are green. He named five must-do items for scaling up.

1) Be activists where we shop
Hirshberg stated that consumers have to drive the demand, so we all must do our research and make sure that we're buying the greenest product (which might not always be the local product).
2) Recycling means we've failed
Businesses have to figure out how to reduce and reuse so that recycling is unnecessary.
3) Organic is not just for the elite
Organic foods often seem like they're only available to those with enough money to buy them, but Hirshberg is adamant that it doesn't need to be this way. We need to make organic foods affordable for everyone.
4) Design sustainable products and packaging
Hirshberg noted that Stonyfield Farms recently switched all of its packaging to plant-based plastic. He stated that while that reduces the company's oil consumption, corn isn't a perfect option. So they ensure that they counter their footprint with GMO offsets, which goes to literally paying GMO corn growers to switch to non-GMO corn.
5) Engage in politics
Hirshberg pointed out that the five largest agriculture interests spent $28 billion on lobbying since 2008. Organic businesses have to get active too, pushing for the regulations that protect the environment and businesses together. He also noted that we have to become more open source -- Stonyfield Farms keeps no secrets, letting their competitors know their moves because they feel this will lead to faster advances on sustainable practices.

It might be easier said than done, but the principles set out by Hirshberg out are a good starting point for areas businesses can focus on if they want to help boost organic products in the marketplace without losing sight of the bigger goal of going organic. Stonyfield Farms is a perfect example of how a business can grow not only its bottom line, but the bottom line of other sustainable businesses and the health of the environment.

Here is Gary Hirshberg speaking about the sustainable business practices that have brought such high levels of success to his company while keeping their footprint tiny.


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More on Stonyfield Farms
The TH Interview: Gary Hirshberg, CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farm (Part One)
The TH Interview: Gary Hirshberg, CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farm (Part Two)
How Environmentally Friendly is Your Favorite Company?

Tags: Corporate Responsibility | Environmental Footprint | Farming