TH Interview: Sheryl O'Loughlin, CEO of Clif Bar

We've written about Clif Bar on TreeHugger, not just about their products but also about different environmental initiatives the company has taken. We were thrilled when Sheryl O'Loughlin, the CEO of Clif Bar, took the time to answer all of the questions that we had for her about sustainability, organic ingredients and even touched upon the issue of the larger companies, such as Wal-Mart, going organic. We got some insight on Clif Bar as a company, about what Sheryl personally does each day for the planet and even some advice on what we can do individually. Below are the results of our interview.

1) Sheryl, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. The TreeHugger community is interested in knowing about Clif Bar as a business and what your perspective is on the green marketplace.Everything we eat has a consequence on our health, our community's health and the health of the planet. At Clif Bar & Co. we are proud of the fact that we make nourishing delicious food that adds value to people's lives. In other words, we understand how much food matters. As we make and serve our food we do so with the an intention and awareness of our 5 aspirations which are sustaining our people, sustaining our planet, sustaining our communities, sustaining our brands and sustaining our company. These aspirations help guide us in our journey towards sustainability.

Becoming a fully sustainable company requires an open mind and a lot of patience — no company is 100% there yet — but within the green marketplace we are learning from one another and from our consumers, and I believe this is what will make a difference in the world. As we journey we have had to the opportunity to find connections between our passions those of our consumers — as well as with those of other companies. These connections have been opportunities for us to learn, to share and to have dialog with others on similar journeys. Through these connections and conversations, a new business paradigm is beginning to emerge. Unlike traditional business paradigms, we actually have to work together with other companies in the green marketplace to overcome challenges, to find ways to meet our individual goals and to meet the needs and passions of our consumers.

2) What are some of your projects that have the potential to engage a moremainstream audience (for example, TreeHugger has written about the partnership with ski areas)?

Our food's accessibility and appeal allows us to share sustainable values with millions of people. We are committed to making food that is delicious and nourishing and will help people meet their goals — whether it is better nutrition on a busy day or helping athletes perform at a top level. By using organic ingredients we have made our food even more nourishing and we are expanding people's experience with organic foods and sustainability.

In addition to our food, we sponsor thousands of events each year — everything from athletic events like triathlons and marathons to lifestyle events such as music festivals and concerts. Last year we created a new event sponsorship model which allows us to work with event promoters to make events climate neutral — this is really exciting for us! Through a joint investment in the construction of non-polluting wind farms, we are able to partner with event promoters to offset the total CO2 generated by the event. We also work with event promoters and the onsite vendors to set-up recycling and composting stations onsite. We have now used this model at several events including 2005 and 2006 Bonnaroo Music Festival, the 2005 and 2006 Escape from Alcatraz event, the 2006 Maverick's surf competition, the 2006 Tour of California, the 2006 Sea Otter Classic and the 2006 Accenture Escape from Alcatraz. We've also just initiated a partnership with the Greek Theater which will create an entire season of climate neutral concerts.

3) The media inquiries you receive, are they biased or objective in regards to the industrial food giants becoming "organic" so to speak?

Any time you try something new, take a risk, or move in a new direction people take notice and start talking and they come to you with a lot of questions. We welcome all questions and conversations — it will only make us all better.

4) How much say do you have in selecting eco-friendly ingredients, for example, can you ask for organically grown anything or is it tough?

Yes — it is tough. We promise to make delicious, nourishing organic food. Our goal is to get 100% organic ingredients in all of our food and currently we are at 75% across our entire line. The reason for this, very simply, is that we cannot always find the right ingredients — organic, high quality and consistently available — in the quantities that we need.

5) Many people are worried about big companies going "organic" such as Wal-Mart's new approach — do you think we need to be concerned about these companies, especially locking in on big contracts such as meat, rice, wheat, etc.?

There are two sides to this. Ultimately, it is a great thing — it is better for the planet and it is better for people's health; however, how it is done is going to be the issue. This is where business paradigms shift from "winner takes all" to "how can we help each other so that everybody benefits — including our communities and the planet". We need to work together to increase the availability of ingredient, especially in the US, and we also need to help farmers transition from conventional farming to organic.

One solution that we have been looking to a lot recently is the organic cotton industry. Five years ago the organic cotton industry recognized that it was on the verge of a potential supply problem. A non-profit organization, Organic Exchange, brought farmers, processors and manufacturers together to figure out how to expand the supply. Through conversation and information-sharing, each organization was able to understand their individual impact on supply and its consequences on the entire industry. By establishing a collective understanding of the industry's challenges there was a strong foundation for effective problem solving which has allowed each organization to contribute to the solutions. This is great model for the food industry to use!

6) I understand last month that Clif Bar had a problem fulfilling its supply of organic nuts - are you seeing this among the other organic products you purchase?

Yes — the organic ingredient supply is very volatile right now. The crops that tend to be our most chronic challenges are:
· Organic Oats
· Blueberries were tough in 2004-2005. The 2006 harvest is in July/August and we are hopeful that they will have an ample supply
· Almonds
· Hazelnuts
· Cashews
· Apricots
· Organic brown rice syrup — much of the brown rice crop was wiped out by hurricane Katrina.

7) In what way, if any, has the government's definition of "organic" impacted your business?

It's actually been helpful to us in that it has provided clarity to consumers. What we want to insure is that the integrity of the laws is maintained as the organic food industry continues to grow.

8) A few of our TH writers are graduates of the Presidio MBA program and I know you've been working with a number of those students. What are your thoughts on business education, in particular, working w/ Presidio and the sustainable management program?

I am really excited to see sustainability enter into the business school curriculum. That wasn't something that existed when I was in school. It is so promising and important to keep the momentum on these issues moving forward. We feel very lucky to have such a great relationship with Presidio and to have dialog with them — it is another opportunity for learning and sharing — and it is great that they are so close!

9)Does the future of green business lie with big companies slowly turning green or with small businesses building the green marketplace from the ground up?

Both play an important role.

10) What do you do every day to help the planet? What about your company? What's one thing you wish you could do?

What I do: Everyday I make my daily decisions mindfully — with an awareness of their potential impact on the environment. Whether it's supporting my local farmers market and buying local, organic food for my family or working with my colleagues to source a new organic ingredient; I know that every decision matters. Each choice I make is a moment of reflection and an opportunity to lessen my impact on the environment. Through consistent, thoughtful and sustainable decisions, we are collectively changing the world.

Clif Bar: Every day at every level of the business we are finding ways to reduce our impact on the planet. We have found that simple measures often offer the most profound results. Here are just a few of the many things we do on a daily basis.

· Ecosystem Assessment: We are currently conducting an ecosystem assessment where we're looking at the resources going both into and out of our whole Clif Bar system — examining everything we make from "field to field". This will give us an idea of how efficient we are at using our resources, and help us to identify areas where we can reduce our impacts on the planet, and direct our future activities. We will be examining resources such as energy, water, and air (including emissions and greenhouse gasses), as well as packaging and actual ingredients.

· Waste diversion: Our office recycling efforts include cardboard, mixed paper, plastic and glass bottles, cans, non-rigid plastic, wooden pallets and batteries. Every employee has desk-side recycling and our kitchens are outfitted with recycling and composting bins. These efforts have allowed us to divert more than 80% of our waste from local landfills.

· Cool commutes: In partnership with American Forests, we plant enough trees to offset the carbon dioxide generated by our employees' daily commutes.

· Wind Energy: In a partnership with Native Energy, a Native American-run wind farm, we purchase enough wind energy credits to neutralize the CO2 generated by our manufacturing, distribution, office and business travel practices.

· Promotional Materials and Print Collateral: For our promotional materials and print collateral, we use only unbleached, recycled paper and non-toxic inks. All promotional T-shirts are made from organic cotton.

· Paper: We purchase only 100% post-consumer recycled paper for our office.

· Staff Ecologist: We have a full-time ecologist on staff who acts as a resource for us in understanding our business's impact on the environment. Elysa also helps us to establish ecological-minded solutions and practices that will lessen our ecological footprint. She also identifies opportunities for us to have a restorative impact on the environment such as planting trees and helping to build renewable energy sources.

· 2080 Program: Our employees contribute directly to the community through a physical presence and hard work. Each year we collectively set a goal of donating at least 2080 hours to community service (the equivalent of having one full-time employee dedicated exclusively to volunteer work). The 2080 Program is employee-run which allows employees to select and participate (on company time) to the causes and issues that they are passionate about. Virtually every employee at every level of the business has donated their time through this program.

· "Eco-Posse": We have an in-house "Eco-Posse" — a group of employees who initiate, lead and inspire improvement of company-wide "green-up" efforts — including employee education — anything from decoding the plastic-recycling numbers to showing people how to set their printer default to "print on both sides". The "posse" also rallies us to improve our company-wide projects such as evaluating our composting efforts or finding ways to put GOOS (good one one side) paper to better use.

Every day at every level of the business we ask ourselves and each other tough questions and we initiate conversations about how and where we can improve the way we do business — these conversations force us to challenge the status quo — fueling our imagination and our innovation.

My wish: Global warming is the single greatest environmental threat that we face today. I have come to realize that the solution to global warming lies in the private sector. Great companies are driven by innovation and imagination — and I believe that it will be innovation and imagination that ultimately reduce the threat of this global crisis. As consumers we are at the heart of this innovation —with each choice we make we have an opportunity to propel innovation — the more that we ask of companies the more we will receive. My wish would be to speed up this transition — overnight would be great! — it would be amazing to wake up tomorrow morning knowing that every company was as driven to sustain the health of the planet and its community as it was to meet its bottom line.

11) What's the single most important thing each person can do to make our world a more sustainable place?

Find intersections between your personal passions and the causes that you care about. By doing the things that you love and doing them in a way that benefits the world you will stay motivated and happy and you will have fun — by sending your joy into the world will inspire others to do the same.

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