What the natural products industry learned from 2020—and how to apply it in 2021

The most tumultuous year in living memory is coming to a close, but the leaders of the natural products industry have no intention of forgetting the lessons learned. We asked them what some of those lessons are, and how they will be put to use in 2021 and beyond.

Rick Polito, Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Business Journal

December 14, 2020

10 Min Read
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The truth about the term “2020 hindsight” turned out to be that that hindsight is really the only way any of us want to experience 2020. People are already warming up their paper shredders and bonfires for the 2020 calendar as soon as they can tear it off the wall.

But that doesn’t we didn’t learn from 2020; the question has become how, exactly, we will take those lessons forward.

We reached out to people across the natural products industry and asked, "What did you learn in 2020 that will change how you do business?"

We’ve shared their responses below, and we invite you to add your 2020 learnings as comments.

“What we learned that contingency plans need to have layers. You don’t just need plan A. You probably need plans C through Z, and if you have to double up letters and go AA through ZZ, then so be it. When the pandemic started, we thought we’d be through the other side in a few months, but it forced us to change plans and regroup over and over again. Adaptive agility is a term that we’ve used for a long time but it really became the daily marching orders in 2020. The other thing we learned is how important communication is in a crisis. When anxiety is high, your team needs to hear from you. In 2020 that meant getting on video and going online more often and with more to say. I think we will see that continue in 2021 and beyond.”

- Jim Emme, CEO, NOW Foods

"This year provided multiple learning opportunities. The most impactful of these lessons was the realization that the Earth had shown us humans in stark fashion the interconnectedness of all living beings and created a new awareness of that intricate system, which will certainly change how we all do business in 2021 and beyond."

- Bill Chioffi, Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine

"This year, we’ve been forced to sit with ourselves and confront the challenging realities around us, both personally and professionally. And at times, those boundaries have blurred like never before. We’ve also seen assets under management in ESG (environmental, social, governance) funds skyrocket, from $23 trillion in 2016 to $40 trillion in 2020. And since the beginning of 2020, assets managed through public equity funds with the circular economy as the sole or partial investment focus have increased six-fold, from $300 million to over $2 billion. 

So the lesson? Extraction is obsolete, sustainability won’t get us out of this mess and conservation isn’t a viable solution. Regeneration is the path forward, from food to fuel to finance, and our creativity and innovation are some of our most valuable assets."

- Robyn O’Brien, rePlant Capital

"Lesson one was that strong fundamentals help you survive and thrive in a crisis. If you have products that have solid published science, the market will reward you when there is a bump in demand. If you built a base of loyal customers who are confident that your products work, it translates into tremendous word-of-mouth. If you have a solid team running your business, your people will enable you to overcome challenges and they work independently with incredible productivity. In 2021 and beyond we will focus on strengthening those fundamentals

Lesson two was having solid contingency plans in place and moving as soon as a crisis is on the horizon. We started to pile up on inventory in February, arguably too late and not aggressively enough. Some of our partners had not diversified in certain parts of their business and the disruption in their supply chain hurt us. It’s easier to Monday-morning-quarterback in the context of this crisis since it was unprecedented, but the lessons stand. In 2021 we are going to stress test our supply chain, establish clear contingency plans for several parts of our operation and develop some new SOP’s on inventory management decisions at the first sign of crisis."

- Dan Lifton, Quality of Life Labs

"I have learned to breathe, hold on, let go, feel my feelings and be empathic to all around. It's the personal touch that has been impactful this year and that I and my sales team will be deploying next year."

- Elan Sudberg, Alkemist Labs

"In 2020 we learned that there is a balance between working remotely and working to face-to-face that needs to be recognized and optimized. Let’s face it, many of us were skeptical that people could accomplish so much working remotely. There was a stigma. But, arguably, we are all working harder than ever.

At the same time, I think we appreciate the value of getting together in the same room and interfacing in person to brainstorm through problems and create new ideas. That’s hard to do virtually. We probably appreciate that now more than we ever did. I think we will come out of this knowing a lot more about how remote work and in-office work can work together. We’ll be able to create a balance that makes best use of both."

- Jim Hamilton, Omniactive

"What this year taught us is that staff are looking for leadership through communication, not bosses dictating orders, and they can handle adversity if given the support and tools to overcome challenges such as the ones posed in 2020. It was amazing to watch our team’s resilience and perseverance through very unique circumstances. We also discovered that decentralized clinical studies are the wave of the future in manty exciting new areas of claims substantiation."

- William Rowe, NutraSource

"This year taught me to be even more nimble, adjust quickly to a changing environment, and embrace making tough decisions with limited data. Despite 2020’s large number of disparate bad scenarios, it has helped me improve as a leader and a person. As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. This baptism by fire was the catalyst for new frameworks that will help make us iterate more quickly and better. This growth will shape the way Nuherbs will do business in 2021 and beyond."

- Wilson Lau, Nuherbs

"If 2020 has taught us anything it is that change is coming, and it is coming more often and faster than expected. We’d better be nimble and creative without sacrificing our commitment to quality or our mission. Last March the NSF Health Sciences Certification team quickly adjusted our thinking from it being necessary to conduct audits in person to understanding that while it may be preferential to do so, in the light of the pandemic it was also not possible.

In two weeks we reinvented our approach and were providing high-quality audits virtually. What had been inconceivable became a reality. Furthermore, we have also worked with our clients to help them understand that their quality commitment and NSF’s enhancement of it is more important now that we are in crisis than before when everything was normalized. There is more at stake than ever, and we have been able to work internally and with our clients to minimize the negative impact to all our businesses.

Going forward we realize we need to have a strong and focused portfolio of services, but also to be able to pivot on a dime with a moment’s notice. To paraphrase Darwin, it is not the strongest or most intelligent that survives, but the one that is adaptable."

- David Trosin, NSF

"This year reminded us that it’s all about the supply chain and forecasting. Historically, no one was in a position to provide a forecast. I can think of two or three forecasts over the past 28 years. Since the upset to the supply chain of toilet paper in March of 2020, where the old demand curve no longer met the consumers buying patterns, it seems like 99% of the people understand that a forecast is “required” and a smart move. Now customers are forecasting and RIBUS is providing forecasts to our contract manufacturers and input suppliers. We were also reminded that communication in advance is free, but communication after the fact is often very expensive."

- Steve Peirce, RIBUS

"In 2020 retailers learned that supply chain is equally or more important than assortment, and that we will have to be more fluid with our category review structure in order to keep pace with changing environment and supply. For manufacturers, they need to pick their spots on where they want to react. Case in point hand sanitizer, we went from not being able to keep it stocked to everyone is now making it and the market is saturated. If you're not able to quickly pivot to the immediate need, you're better off focusing on your core business."

- Jonathan Lawrence, Fresh Thyme Farmers Market

"I think 2020 was the year of strength. Most of our lives were turned upside down and when that happens, you can either sink down or rise up against the storm. This is the time we must push harder, go stronger, be faster. You don't realize how strong you were until after the storm passes! Our industry is used to seeing each other several times throughout the year at events, but with the current situation that was halted.

I saw, and felt, the deep need for connection, so in September I held the first socially-distanced, in person dietary supplement networking event for New Jersey and New York. It was a huge success and a second event was held in November. I think 2020 reminded us that community is important and we shouldn’t forget how valuable it is just because it becomes easier again."

- Diana Morgan, Care/of

"When the pandemic first hit the U.S., many natural and organic products brands pulled back to conserve cash flow. On the other hand, demand to fill the shelf with essential items kept many established companies busier than they’ve ever been. As a result, PR and marketing communications fell off in the initial months of the coronavirus crisis. However, as the pandemic has worn on, brands can no longer conduct demos in stores to get samples into consumers’ hands. As a result, the importance of digital communications and working with influencers to help spread the word about products and brands has surged in importance. Today, when we need to communicate digitally as the primary means of communication, it is vital to develop a public relations and communications plan that addresses this changing market consistently heading into the future. And much of these changes will be long lasting."

- Steven Hoffman, Compass Natural

"I learned that we are all more connected and committed than ever before to bringing innovation and change to the natural products industry. As a consultant, delivering value to clients is something that I have always done in person as well as remote. I've seen my clients engage more than ever and embrace new ideas more than ever. This year has shown that commitment paves the way for industry growth."

- Lisa Shephard, marketing consultant

“In 2020 I was reminded that humanity is inherently resilient and can pull together to overcome even the most challenging obstacles. I believe that the flexibility as to how business has been done in 2020 during COVID will forever evolve how business will occur going forward. What we did pre-COVID or during COVID was not ideal–I see a hybrid format going forward that leverages the best of technology and the legacy benefits of meeting face-to-face. I continue to be very bullish about what humanity can accomplish even when faced with what appears to be unsurmountable obstacles. Onward and upward!”

- Wayne Wu, VMG Partners

About the Author(s)

Rick Polito

Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Business Journal

As Nutrition Business Journal's editor-in-chief, Rick Polito writes about the trends, deals and developments in the natural nutrition industry, looking for the little companies coming up and the big money coming in. An award-winning journalist, Polito knows that facts and figures never give the complete context and that the story of this industry has always been about people.

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