The TH Interview: Gary Hirshberg, CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farm (Part One)



Before Stonyfield Farm was a $325 million company, Gary Hirshberg was milking the cows and trying to get the bills paid. Now, as the largest organic yogurt-maker, he is fulfilling the original mission: make money and save the world. From milk cows to yogurt cups to food miles, Hirshberg has been an innovator and a ground-breaker, going where no business men would dare. Here he speaks with TreeHugger about green business, presidential politics, and the hidden power of camel poo. ::TreeHugger Radio

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download.

Full text after the jump. TreeHugger: I'm here with Gary Hirshberg, the President and CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farm, an incredibly successful, incredibly green company based out of New Hampshire. Gary, you just wrote a book called "Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World."

More and more businesses are going green now, but many of those business leaders only saw the light after years, or sometimes even decades, in the game. But you started out from the very get-go with a vision of using business to protect and heal the planet. Is that right?

Gary Hirshberg: Yes, that's a fair summary. First of all, I think most of these companies and CEOs are jumping into the game not because they suddenly had a bout of moral consciousness, but because oil has topped the $100 per barrel mark. Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention.

And we all know now that economics clearly favor the green conversion. My own background was that I grew up here in New Hampshire. My father and grandfather were shoe manufacturers, so I grew up in a polluting industry. And by the time I went to college, I had been coming to realize that rivers aren't supposed to catch on fire.

Those pretty colors that I saw as a little kid going out the back [of the show factory] are not really very good for the planet. And more as a ski racer who spent a lot of time on mountains, these views that I have seen in my early childhood have become obscured as I became a later adolescent.

So I went off to college to try to do everything to get as far from business as possible, but through a long, circuitous route, I wound up studying climate change and ecology. This is back in the early '70s. I eventually came to the conclusion that unless business was part of the solution, the equation, that was going to result in a more sustainable approach to life on earth, it was never going to happen. That really came to me right after college when I was first working at and then running an ecological research center called The New Alchemy Institute, which studied how to produce food and energy with no fossil fuels.

And we had 25,000 people visiting me per year at the Institute. But I went to visit my mother, who was the senior buyer at The Epcot Center in Florida, where Kraft Foods was funding their Land Pavilion, which showed Kraft's view of how food ought to be grown in the future; which was a little different from mine. But the big shocker of that day was not the incredible widespread use of fossil fuels and CO2 emissions and so on, it was the fact that for the 25,000 people who visited my institute every year, that many people visited them every day.

And that was the inspiration. That and the Reagan revolution, which slashed funding for renewable energy, conservation, organics and so on. That's what really led us to start Stonyfield: to see if we could create a company that could in fact put forward the solutions to our planet's problems as opposed to be yet another business exploiting and operating in the mythologies of "away," and cheap oil, and all those other myths from the earlier century.

TH: But things have come an incredibly long way and now Stonyfield is big time. And you're rolling with some of the bigwigs in the corporate world, and you go around telling people that "serving humanity pays." This is obviously a heretical business ethic from the point of view of traditional business circles.
Do people still look at you like you're a crazy person in the traditional business world?

GH: Well, certainly in the early days everyone thought we were crazy. I always say that we had a wonderful business. The only problem was that we had no supply and no demand. But organic, obviously, has come of age. Sustainability is now coming into vogue. And as I said at the outset, this isn't because we've suddenly had a tremendous burst of moral rectitude here. It's strictly because of economics.

And really economics have obliterated all criticism of us. Stonyfield is now a $325 million company, outgrowing our category dramatically. We're the number three yogurt in the U.S., as well as the largest organic yogurt company in the world.

But also macroeconomics. We have demonstrated, and certainly many of the folks like Yvonne and others in business who you've interviewed have proven this as well, that anytime you can reduce your climate footprint, anytime you can decrease waste, anytime you can get yourself less dependent on fossil fuels, cut emissions, or alternatively, build loyalty by promoting causes that people care about—in our case, not using synthetic hormones, not using pesticides or herbicides or chemical fertilizers or antibiotics; in other words, being organic. These things work in two ways: both growing the top line and shrinking the bottom line.

And there isn't a businessperson on earth at any level who can afford to ignore these ideas. So my audiences have moved from the kind of more crunchy crowd to a lot of suits.

But the happy news is that even at the highest levels of commerce, and I'm talking about CEOs of Fortune 100 companies who I've gotten to hang out with of late, nobody, not one single person, has ever shown a negative correlation with investing in green.

In other words, nobody has ever demonstrated that investing in greening your operation or in sustainability has cost in economic terms.

TH: Not unlike Patagonia, Google, and other progressive companies, Stonyfield has always seemed to stick to minimal advertising, relying on word of mouth and ideas that spread from person to person. But in the early days it took some real pushing to get that going: actually being in grocery store aisles, trying to get people to taste your yogurt. And at one point a unique opportunity for some free marketing came down the line, and this is the kind of marketing that can only come with camel manure. Can you grace us with that tale?

GH: My pleasure. Well, there were a couple of early shock jocks back in the eighties in Boston called The Joe and Andy Show. Joe was this very athletic guy who ran marathons and Andy was a guy who basically bragged about how many doughnuts he could eat in a sitting. And they used to play off of each other. (And sadly, Andy, who was a very good guy, by the way, wound up dying of a heart attack not long after this episode.)

But one day, Joe was watching Andy eat another batch of doughnuts during the show and he turned to him and said, "You know, you really ought to fix your eating. It's going to kill you." Prescient that he was. He said, "You really ought to eat this new yogurt I've discovered, called Stonyfield Farm," and he went off on this unsolicited testimonial for us. Which was for us, at that time, just gold, of course. We couldn't afford a nickel of advertising, on his or any other show.

So Andy just spontaneously barked out, "Well, I'd rather eat camel manure than yogurt." So, in our local area, in southern New Hampshire, we had Benson's Animal Farm, which had camels. It was winter at that time. So my wife and I went over early the next morning, knocked on the gate, and said, "Can we visit your camels?" We filled a quart container of yogurt for Joe, and we brought an empty container over which we filled with camel nuggets for Andy.

We drove to Boston and during the ride the frozen camel nuggets thawed, and when we got there the top was domed up like a balloon. And the receptionist looked at us and said, "May I help you?" And I said, "Yes, we're here to see Joe and Andy." And she said, "Well, you don't think you can just walk onto the show, do you?" And I cracked the lid just a mite, and I said, "Andy said he'd like to eat camel manure, I thought he should smell this." And she took one whiff out of it and just waved us in.

So we got through security. Anyhow, we managed to get onto the show and we did get our first endorsement that in fact our yogurt did taste better than camel manure. A big, big moment.


TH: Wow. You can't buy that.

GH: No, you can't. It keeps happening. We have a lid that's out there now that talks about the need for campaign finance reform. Our yogurts have made their way onto Capitol Hill, but last week they were booted off. We had to take our cups out of the Capitol cafeteria for the week. The lids actually said, "in politics the cream doesn't always rise to the top." It goes on to talk about how you have to be a millionaire to run for office nowadays.

Anyhow, they didn't seem to have much of a sense of humor on Capitol Hill. On the other hand, the congressional aides made a big deal out of it and got us all kinds of free press in the blogosphere. Again, you can't pay for that stuff.

TH: But, that's not the only political thing you're embroiled in right now. From what I understand, Nancy Pelosi has been pushing for healthier food in the House of Representatives cafeteria, and one of the choices is Stonyfield Farm yogurt. Apparently, people are rather upset about this and even making accusations that this is a plot to line your pockets.

GH: Well, actually the specific allegation was that it's a stealth fundraising campaign for Barack Obama, who I support. I tried to point out to some of these Republican aides that I think I make a hundredth of a penny per cup of yogurt. What I'm hoping for is they'll buy at least a thousand cups so I can give a dime to Barack.

It's a very funny thing, but again, on the one hand, bless Nancy for getting some healthy food there. It's absolutely awful what we feed ourselves as a society, and you see it in the race to maturity onset diabetes and obesity and so forth.

But on the other hand, man these people need to get a life. I mean, come on. The funny thing is that in every business there is somebody who has a political candidate they support. I just happen to be more upfront about it.

TH: Well then, let's not be shy. Let's talk about presidential politics. Have you just made your environmental endorsement for a presidential candidate?

GH: I've been with Barack now for the better part of a year. I'm in New Hampshire, so of course we get an unusual opportunity. I'm sitting in my home office today where I had dinner with Barack in June. But this cycle and every other cycle I've had the opportunity to meet and talk with the candidates.

The reason I got behind him was, yes, in part, because his environmental positions are second to none. But, also, I really believe that business and the environment cannot be in conflict. Business has to find solutions that are sustainable, and sustainability has to find business-like solutions to advance ourselves.

In the same way polarity and divisiveness in Washington is absolutely counter to what we all want here. Not only can we not seem to get significant environmental legislation through we can't get any real legislation through. I mean, the great sweeping, exciting reform that was announced by Nancy Pelosi a month ago, which I know was hard won, was that we will now have SUV fuel efficiency standards of 30 mpg by 2020. Now, I don't know about you or your listeners, but I can tell you that isn't good enough for me. That's a joke. 2020? We should be at 30 mpg by 2008. Now!

But you know what goes on there; that was a compromise. It was the Detroit automakers and their interests, Republican special interests, and so on and so forth. The point of all this is that I think we need a different dialogue in Washington. We need a bipartisan conversation.

One of the things that has really impressed me about Barack is the number of Republicans and Independents who would not only not get behind Hillary Clinton, but who are absolutely excited about him. I've been able to raise money from Republicans who have never in their lives given money to a Democratic candidate. But they, like I, feel we need a different kind of dialogue—certainly for sustainability legislation, for the kind of sweeping reform that is needed not in the long run but, as you and your listeners know, the IPCC has now said we have less than 10 years to correct the trajectory for CO2 emissions.

That means the next congressional cycle, the next presidential election. These will cast a shadow for decades or centuries to come, so we have no time. We need bipartisanship. We need to get rid of the divisiveness and be one species.

Tags: Carbon Offsets | Cattle | Clean Energy | Farming | Food Miles | Food Safety | New Hampshire