Natural Foods Merchandiser

Q&A with Ellen Feeney, vice president of responsible livelihood

Q: What is WhiteWave doing to educate its customers about its initiatives?

A: It comes down to building relationships. You have to lay the groundwork with your employees, because if it’s integrated through the organization and people begin to understand it and adapt it to their lives, then every meeting they’re in and every decision they make is infused with that awareness. On the consumer side, we’ve used opportunities on packaging to talk about wind energy, the impact of organic farming and Farm Aid, which we sponsor. We try to connect the DNA strands so that the relationship is tighter between our partners, our consumers, our employees and our customers.

Q: How have consumers responded?

A: We’ve got the core people who’ve been using Silk and Horizon for years and years and years. They’re the ones asking about things like packaging. Then you have the newbies who may have been introduced to soy for health or dietary reasons, and they typically have questions like, “what’s this thing about wind energy?”

When times are rough and when dollars are tight, people want to know that pennies they spend go toward some good. It has less to do with what products look like and the color of the packaging and the fancy ads we buy. It has more to do with the features and benefits of the products and what we stand for. At the other end of the spectrum, we’re creating programs with the International Delight brands, which are not part of the natural products industry. That brand family is adding wind energy and trying to communicate it to a mainstream consumer. It’s a real opportunity to educate somebody in middle America about why wind energy and our support of Bonneville Environmental Foundation is really adding to the renewable-energy capacity of the United States.

Q: A couple of years ago, carbon offsetting was the big sustainability push. What’s next?

A: There’ll always be a place for offsetting because it will be hard for companies to get to a place of totally net zero. A couple of years ago, everyone was talking carbons and food miles and carbon footprints. But water consumption and use is just as important, especially in the food industry. Globally the availability of water, the quality of water and the cost of water are all on the rise. Some great research about water shows that if you just become conscious about tracking your water usage, the very impact of tracking it results in being able to reduce consumption by 10 percent right off the top. We have products that use a lot of water to clean the equipment and facilities, and though we won’t be able to get it down to nothing, we’re looking at putting some metrics against quantifying what we use. I don’t know if water’s going to get to be like oil, but it’s a precious resource, and anytime we can do a better job of saving it in our manufacturing facilities, that’s good.

Q: How much support do you get from WhiteWave’s parent company, Dean Foods?

A: Dean had a lot of vision and foresight to even acquire the Silk and Horizon brands. They knew there was growing interest in organic and nongenetically modified products. And they embraced that part of the brand that spoke to responsible livelihood. They get that this is part of what’s important to the industry and the brands’ DNA and brand equity. There’s been a lot to do, and I’ve found an open audience whenever I’ve said, “Hey, how about this? We need to do this.” We’ve helped them with their sustainability report; they’ve got a bigger system to get their arms around. They’ve made some great reduction goals, and they have a great team in place. It’s a great relationship, and it’s a sincere one.

Q: What does the future look like for companies that are just now investing in sustainability?

A: It’s all about intentions. We have seen a lot of people jump on the green bandwagon, waving the green flag, but they don’t have that pure intention behind it. The companies that will do alright long term are the ones that have a long-term position on resources. Because that’s what sustainability is—looking at the future and being mindful of things being used now. So it makes sense to me that if it’s a pure part of their intention and clarity of vision, then they’ll do better because they’ll be spending money and resources more wisely and spending less to produce the same product.

Q: You have a super-cool job title at a naturals company owned by a huge food conglomerate. What does that say about where sustainability is?

A: About a year ago we drafted a new mission statement: “We will be the Earth’s favorite food company,” which is very aspirational. But it’s also a call to action for everyone to kind of get the direction that we’re growing in. We’re appealing to a wide range of consumers, and even if a product isn’t organic, we can source sustainably, we can offer packaging that’s more sustainable and we can offset some of the energy with wind energy. Then we can use those opportunities to educate mainstream consumers. We’re pretty humble because we realize we’re not there yet. We’re very committed to making incremental improvements; but are we perfect? No. Is everything as it should be yet? No. Are we in the progress of getting better? Absolutely. It’s not like you get there and you’re done. I’m really proud of the progress we’ve made—don’t get me wrong—but it’s a process.


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