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Does the natural products industry have a #MeToo problem?

The natural products industry presents itself as an oasis of political enlightenment, but women report sexism is still common. The first installment in this three-part Nutrition Business Journal series explores reports of sexual harassment.

Kellye Crocker

December 17, 2019

15 Min Read
Woman holding #MeToo sign

In February 2016—20 months before news of the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke—Karen Howard called on the natural products industry to step up as leaders for gender equity. Writing for Nutrition Business Journal in the first Dark Issue, Howard challenged natural products trade associations and companies to, among other things, establish zero tolerance for sexual harassment and hold violators accountable.

Three years later, she’s still waiting. 

“Whenever this comes up, it’s in very hushed tones and it’s never in public,” says Howard, CEO and executive director of the Organic & Natural Health Association. “We are not unscathed by this. That is absolutely the truth. I’ve witnessed some of this, but no one is discussing it. There have been no ramifications for the behavior. So why would people want to talk about it?”

Howard and others would say companies promising better-for-you products have an obligation to set a better example. Let others churn out widgets. The natural products industry has set itself apart with a higher-minded vision for its products and profits. From the farmers who shunned synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides in the 1920s to the hippies and “health food nuts” of the ’60s and ’70s, the industry is rooted in the loftiest goals—health, wellness and saving the earth.

“Healthy people, healthy planet, that’s what I tell people we do,” Howard says. “We’re a very special industry. If we walk our talk, that means we’re investing in people.”  

Bad operators

But while the industry has dodged the spotlight for sexual harassment and other discrimination so far, that doesn’t mean it’s free from such problems. Some industry leaders agreed to be interviewed for this story, but declined to be quoted—even if their names weren’t used—citing gag orders in discrimination lawsuit settlements and the fear of retribution, legal and otherwise.

“We talk about being so conscious and values driven, and that’s all true and valid, but that doesn’t mean individuals are exempt ... in their behavior to others,” says one industry veteran who faced workplace discrimination for being pregnant. She asked to remain anonymous in this article. “I think we need to be talking more openly about that. Is this industry just not wanting to acknowledge that there could be bad operators?”

Progressive and innovative, the natural products industry also promises opportunities for greater equality and fairness, she says. But that may also keep some from addressing it, because of worries it may tarnish the industry’s reputation. “I think we’re in a place now where we have a responsibility to elevate those values even more.”

To assume the industry’s high values shield it from such concerns is a mistake, many agree.

Sexual harassment is a symptom of larger problems, including disconnection from self, others and the earth, says Lara Dickinson, executive director and co-founder of OSC2, a group of natural products industry CEOs and leaders working to tackle some of the toughest sustainability problems facing the profession and the planet. “We’ve created a society where power is measured in only one way,” Dickinson says. And that one way, money, is often at odds with the metrics Dickinson values. “I do think it’s shifting, but it would be nice if it shifted faster.”

OSC2 emphasizes regenerative systems—in agriculture but also company leadership, she says. “What I have seen in this industry is that change and awareness starts at the top with the CEO modeling the right behavior,” says Dickinson, who’s worked in the industry since 1997. “To me, it all starts with bringing more consciousness to CEOs, inspiring people to see the opportunities of behaving in a more values-driven way.”

Although some leaders have hesitated to address sexual harassment and other #MeToo issues in the natural products industry, there may come a time when they don’t have a choice. Organizations that ignore abuse and shield offenders not only harm employees and diminish morale and productivity, they increasingly put their reputations, finances and futures at risk. 

Moreover, the issue isn’t going away. #MeToo has prompted state lawmakers to hold businesses more accountable for misconduct, including prohibiting mandatory arbitration and certain non-disclosure agreements and eliminating or extending the statute of limitations on sexual assaults. Vermont’s 2018 law, among the most comprehensive in fighting sexual harassment, allows on-site workplace reviews and inspections. New apps and websites also allow targets of harassment to report sexual misconduct—and connect with each other if they report the same perpetrator, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report.

Pervasive problems

Sexual harassment occurs across all industries, says Jocelyn Frye, an expert on women’s issues who served four years as deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and director of policy and special projects for First Lady Michelle Obama. By law, sexual harassment is a form of workplace discrimination.

“It’s a way to create an unequal situation for the person who’s targeted,” says Frye, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, an independent, nonpartisan, progressive think tank in Washington, D.C. “I think people get caught up in the sex part and forget about the discrimination part. For companies, even if it hasn’t come up in their industry, it’s in everybody’s interest to be ahead of the curve.”

Thirty years ago, managers might have been able to plead ignorance about employees being victimized—but no longer, Frye says. “I would say to any company in 2019, you would be crazy not to deal with these issues,” she says. 

Asked if the natural products industry has a #MeToo problem, Frye put it plainly: “I think the real question is what is the scope of the problem? And are there unique [industry] issues where problems are more likely to arise?”

Trade shows, especially work events with heavy drinking or that require private-room meetings, would be an obvious area to investigate, Frye says. Informa, the company that publishes NBJ and stages trade shows that include Natural Products Expo and SupplySide, investigates all incidents formally reported by employees and attendees. Nine organizations representing the exhibitions and meetings industry last spring formed a coalition aimed at stopping sexual harassment at events, according to Trade Show News Network. One natural products industry executive agreed to speak anonymously about the sexual harassment she experienced at an elite industry conference three and a half years ago. 

“I was pretty much alone.”

At a break between activities, Jane Doe (not her real name) was perched on a bar stool at the end of a long, rectangular table. Others from her group had started leaving when a top industry executive approached. “He got me right at the right time, when I was pretty much alone,” she says.

The man stood so close, Doe had to uncross her legs—and then he edged even closer, pushing between her legs. He pressed his finger against her blouse in the space between her breasts, flicking it back and forth and uttering a crude euphemism.

“I kind of got up and was pushed back,” Doe says. “I was completely stunned, as you can imagine. I consider myself pretty strong—I work out four to five times a week—when that happened, I just froze. It was almost like an out-of-body experience.”

But that wasn’t all. “He told me no one takes me seriously, and I’ve been successful in this industry because of the way I look. He said I was a joke,” she says. “I have never, ever been spoken to like that in my life. Ever.”

After berating her, the man picked up Doe’s glass, chugged the rest of her champagne, slammed it down and left without a word. Doe knew who the man was but had never met him, and he hadn’t introduced himself.

She immediately fled to her room in a nearby hotel, skipping the event she’d planned to attend. “It took me away from my job for the rest of the trip,” she says. “I was scared to go to trade shows after that for fear I’d run into him.”

Doe, who felt physically threatened during the encounter, experienced nightmares and questioned how she presents herself. She’s always tried to appear plainer for work, she says, wearing her hair back in a ponytail and dressing conservatively—not even allowing herself peep-toe shoes. But after the incident, she says, “I wondered, ‘Is it because of the way I looked that this happened to me? Gosh, maybe I shouldn’t have worn eyeshadow.’ And that made me feel even worse.”

Sexual harrassment poll

Doe also briefly questioned her skills and abilities, but now suspects the man felt threatened. “I am great at what I do,” she says.

“No comment.”

After Doe reported what happened to one of her organization’s supervisors, the supervisor spoke to the one witness to the incident. The witness—a friend of the harasser—repeatedly responded with “no comment.” 

She considered taking formal action, but an attorney friend recommended against it, saying it would pit her word against his. A couple of her female friends in the industry seemed disappointed that she didn’t pursue the matter, Doe says. “At the end of the day, I have to think about my kids and paying my bills.”

Seventy percent of employees who experience sex-based harassment never formally report it, according to research cited in a comprehensive 2016 report from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) task force on sexual harassment in the workforce. Sexual harassment is “significantly underreported” for several reasons, Frye says. For starters, workers fear they’ll be blamed or disbelieved, she says, and that harassers won’t be held accountable.

Retaliation also is a major concern, Frye says, and for good reason. Of the 85,000 private-sector workers who filed sexual harassment claims with the EEOC between 2005 and 2015—nearly all of them women—three-fourths experienced retaliation, says Frye, who analyzed the unpublished data in 2017.

Sexual harassment affects women and men at every job level, Frye says, but women, especially those in low-earning service jobs, suffer the most. Stereotypes and significant power imbalances make it even more difficult for women of color, LGBTQ women, immigrants and non-English speakers, Frye says.

Customer complaints

In Frye’s analysis, the largest number of private-sector sexual harassment claims came from the accommodations and food service industries, followed by retail trade and manufacturing. Organizations should look for sexual harassment all along the supply chain—including people who clean the office at night, Frye says.

One woman, a supervisor in the produce department at a large natural and organic market, part of a multi-state chain, says she’s experienced sexual harassment from a co-worker and customers. “Sue Smith” asked that her real name not be used.

One common harassment tactic is “the reach-through,” Smith says, describing how a customer will reach under a worker’s arm for an item, touching her breasts in the process. Once she was standing on a stool at a 9-foot-wide apple display when a man reached around her, touching her breasts. “This man could have grabbed apples on 3 feet of either side of me,” she says. “I almost fell off the stool. That kind of thing happens pretty commonly, usually older men but I’ve had young men do it, too.”

Because these are customers, it’s difficult to know what to do, she says. “There are hundreds of people in the store. It’s like a hit and run,” she says. “It’s like they know they can get away with it.”

Customers aren’t the only problem. Smith says she’d been at her current job for only about six months when a co-worker touched her inappropriately. He’s an “older hippie” who’s been with the market since it was founded, she says. “There’s this whole group of men who were there at the beginning, and they have this protected status, like they can do almost anything,” she says.

She was out on the dock, bending over a box in a small space bordered by a pallet and a wall. The man came up behind her and did “the reach-around.” “His arms were literally at my breasts,” she says. “Literally, his [groin] was in my [rear].”

When she shared what had happened with some women coworkers, they were unfazed. “They were like, ‘Oh yeah, he does stuff like that all the time,’” she says. “He’s had customers complain about him touching them.” When Smith learned no one had confronted the man about his behavior, she did. “He said, ‘You should have said something in the moment because I don’t remember.’ I said, ‘All I’m interested in is that what you did does not happen again.’ He responded, ‘Well, I’ll steer clear of you.’”

Field work

Along with workers in retail and manufacturing, farmworkers also are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment. When women in the entertainment industry created Time’s Up in the fall of 2017, an open letter of support from approximately 700,000 Latina farmworkers offered inspiration and a push to think beyond Hollywood, according to the group’s website.

In its letter, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas wrote that countless farmworker women across the country suffer in silence from widespread sexual harassment at work. Despite their vastly different work environments, farmworkers and movie stars share the experience of “being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security,” yet reporting the crimes doesn’t seem like an option, the letter said. 

The letter could have special resonance for an industry that champions clean-origin food. 

While responsible manufacturers emphasize transparency and traceability, the concepts should extend beyond ingredients and raw materials to how employees at all levels are treated, says Bethany Davis, director of advocacy and government relations at MegaFood. 

“We think a lot of that work starts at home,” Davis says, noting the company’s 9-point manifesto, which includes “a living wage is the only wage” and “empowerment to the people.” “We’re always looking back to that document for how we’re going to behave, essentially.”

MegaFood, which buys more than 500,000 pounds of fresh produce a year directly from its farm partners, requires suppliers to follow a Code of Ethics emphasizing fair and equitable employment conditions, Davis says. Last March the company also became a Certified B Corp, meeting rigorous standards for social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. 

Although she hasn’t experienced sexual harassment in the natural products industry, Davis says she’s heard disturbing accounts of “dark pockets” in the industry. She declined to elaborate, saying these aren’t her personal stories to share, but adds, “I absolutely believe these women. I think that’s the key, to believe women and to respect women.”

Leading by example

Stopping and preventing sexual harassment at any organization starts at the top, the EEOC task force report says, adding, “The importance of leadership cannot be overstated.” The top leaders create the workplace culture, which has the greatest effect on whether sexual harassment thrives or is shut down. 

“It starts at the top and goes throughout,” Frye says. “Part of what’s needed is an effort to change the culture of the workplace and create an environment that’s more inclusive to women. Research says if there’s one effort that works to eliminate harassment, it’s to have more women in leadership.”

Organizations also must create systems to hold all harassers accountable “in a meaningful, appropriate and proportional manner,” the report says. That includes rewarding middle managers and first-line supervisors for stopping harassment and setting consequences for those who don’t, the report says.

Superstar harassers

When the employee who’s behaving badly is a top performer, some managers are tempted to look the other way. But those “superstar harassers” cause high employee turnover that costs companies more than two times the amount their increased productivity generates, creating a net profit loss, according to a 2015 Harvard Business School study. This doesn’t include additional costs of potential litigation, decreased employee morale and customer reaction to the news that a company gave a serial harasser a free pass. The study of more than 58,000 hourly employees at 11 global companies found that an employee performing in the top 1% saved their company $5,303 through increased output. But that doesn’t begin to cover the costs if that star employee was “toxic.” Companies saved $12,489 by simply avoiding a toxic worker, researchers found. 

Frye knows of a large accounting firm that ignored a key leader’s notorious sexual harassment for years. In 2017, he was fired. “It sent a signal across the company that nobody is above the rules. Leaders need to be willing to say they believe in the rules,” she says, “or it’s just lip service.”

Leaders also should devote the necessary time and resources to comprehensive anti-harassment efforts, the EEOC report says, but notes that traditional training has proven ineffective. “People often treat it as, ‘let me tell you what the law requires,’ and that’s the end of the story,” Frye says. Even worse, this kind of training seems to backfire with men who score high on a psychological scale for likelihood to harass women, according to findings published in 2017 in Harvard Business Review. In other words, for these men, sexual harassment awareness training exacerbates the problem. New approaches include customized programs and a focus on bystander training and workplace civility.

To truly combat sexual harassment and other discrimination, Frye encourages organizations “to dig deeper” into what drives bias and to explore attitudes about gender and gender roles. “At the end of the day, that is really what fuels the attitudes that can lead to harassment,” she says. “These issues cut across a lot of spheres and a lot of folks have work to do. Our attitudes around harassment and assault and gender roles are ingrained in our culture. That means that all of us have a responsibility to engage.”

The goal for every company, she says, should be “to create a workplace culture where people feel they can be as productive as possible, and if there’s a problem, their employer and coworkers have their backs.”

About the Author(s)

Kellye Crocker

Kellye Crocker is a freelance writer for Nutrition Business Journal. Crocker has written for a variety of magazines, including Better Homes and Gardens, Glamour, Parents, and Ladies’ Home Journal, as well as for companies such as Liberty Mutual Insurance, Carnival Cruise Lines, Lane Bryant, and Kraft Foods. Before freelancing, Crocker worked for 14 years as a daily newspaper reporter, the last 11 at The Des Moines Register.

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