Natural Foods Merchandiser

I have seen the future, and its green

Natural Products Expo West is over. The elaborate booths have been packed up and shipped off. The retailers have returned home with their sample bags bulging and new products on order. Those who expected to see the impact of the economic downturn play out on the show floor were disappointed; attendance topped 53,000, up from last year’s previous high.

But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Everywhere I went—on the show floor, in education seminars, in casual conversations with retailers and manufacturers—I got the sense that the industry is exactly where it needs to be. The sense of uncertainty was leavened with excitement. With words like “hope” and “change” on everyone’s lips, and new initiatives toward a green economy coming from the highest levels of government, the natural products industry offers solutions to the very problems that most concern us.

Consider just one category: natural household products. In a year in which the overall economy is thought to have shrunk 2 percent, business is booming for green alternatives. “We’ve had 42 percent growth as a company from 2007 to 2008,” said Laura Silverman with Earth Friendly Products. “If things continue as we’ve seen so far, we’re expecting to double our sales this year.”

There are a variety of factors driving the green trend on the consumer level. Perhaps foremost are the ways in which energy prices, stock downturns, environmental issues and rising economic pressures have convinced consumers that business as usual is no longer an option. The Obama campaign’s “C” word is still on everyone’s lips, and the naturals industry has the right combination of quality products and long-range vision to provide the change people are asking for.

In her seminar “Courage to Change: Opportunities for the Natural Products Industry,” integrative medicine pioneer Joan Borysenko said, “We are the cultural creatives, advancing the vision for a resilient, just and sustainable planet. Without a vision for the future, we cannot orient ourselves.”

This industry has long touted that vision, but not so many years ago people outside the industry might have labeled such ideas “fringe” or “idealistic,” if they heard them at all. This industry pioneered awareness of organic farming, to benefit both human health and the health of the land; fair trade practices, to ensure that the producers of the things we consume are paid a living wage; natural personal care, so that the products we use on our bodies are safe and free of toxins; and countless other approaches rooted in equality and sustainability.

This vision, this quest for new solutions to old problems, continues, as witnessed by more than 400 new companies among the 1,900 manufacturers and suppliers exhibiting at Expo West. According to legend, the Chinese have a curse: “May you live in interesting times.” For the naturals industry, the times in which we live instead provide a unique opportunity. The companies that seize it will do well by doing good. This green approach will feed the ultimate bottom line—the health of this planet and all its inhabitants.

Mitchell Clute
Contributing writer
Natural Foods Merchandiser

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