When a movement forms and grows, it cries for understanding; demands for change often falling on deaf ears. When change finally occurs, positive impact exponentially rippling through society, it’s easy to lose perspective on what’s shifted, and be wary of those joining the march. Natural foods, a movement-turned-industry, has set a profound shift into motion and a growing audience is listening carefully.
As I approach my first anniversary at New Hope I find myself filled with gratitude: I get to come to work each day and lend my voice to the most important force on the planet.
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Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mathieu Senard (for this piece), one of the founders of Alter Eco, a company doing remarkable good works in every step of their process. In that interview, Senard said that business is “the greatest force on the planet right now.”
I had great respect for Alter Eco, but I thought Senard must be delusional on this point. Greater planetary forces than business? Gravity came to mind. So did gulf streams, tides, weather patterns and the plants of the earth breathing in the endless cycle of carbon and oxygen.
Yet, it’s true. Senard was spot on. As we sit squarely in the geological age now identified as the Anthropocene, humans indeed hold the reins—intentionally or otherwise—of vast planetary systems. Industry is certainly the human force that put us in the driver’s seat, and our hunger for more, cheaper, warmer, faster, cooler, out of season, has kept the engines of destruction churning and the gears grinding a daunting reality loud enough to drown out, one at a time, even the loudest climate deniers.
Business is indeed the greatest force on the planet, and it is therefore the greatest human opportunity for positive change (a satisfying thought in the autumn of our political discontent). I’ll even take it a step further than Senard did in that interview: The food business is the most significant opportunity for positive planetary change. There, I said it. Why? Because, while second to energy in terms of climate impact, agriculture holds the profound possibility to not just halt the destruction, but to reverse the damage.
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When I started my career in the aisles of a Cambridge, Massachusetts natural foods store in 1990, I enjoyed the pulse of activism that coursed through the veins of our industry. And in that activism was an us and them awareness. Us: small independent retailers and producers preaching the gospel of the forgotten glory of whole foods. Them: the giants of the cheap, processed food I'd grown up on.
Fast forward a decade and the processed food machine began to gobble up natural foods companies: sellouts, every one of them! Or so we believed.
Fast forward another decade or so, and conglomeration is the name of the game. Paraphrasing Justin’s founder Justin Gold, This is not about the independent brands selling out, it's about the big brands buying in. Gold is, admittedly, biased. But I think he’s right.
Are the giants of processed food still processing junk? Yes. Do we have far to go? Yes. But we’ve come a very long way and we’ve reached a tipping point. It remains difficult to fully trust the motives and outcomes of conglomeration, but it is clear that the industry is changing. McDonald's adding healthier menu options and moving to cage-free eggs may not fully satisfy, but it demonstrates the positive ripples. Big business is listening, small business is leading and consumers are hungry for good works.
In this week of feasting and gratitude, I am grateful to be involved in the single greatest force on the planet. I’m grateful for the pioneers of natural foods who created this industry a few decades ago and I’m grateful for today’s disruptors who continue to change the way the world sees food. Most of all, I'm grateful for the consumers, the ever-broadening audience that is opening their eyes, ears, mouths and wallets to demand a brighter, richer, more nutritious—and much yummier!—food future.
Thank you, congratulations and Happy Thanksgiving.