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Harmless Harvest is just getting started

Organic Award

If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, then a supply chain, as Justin Guilbert sees it, will always be at risk. So when he and partner Douglas Riboud founded Harmless Harvest coconut water in 2009, both wanted a company functioning as a single link, from tree to shelf, every step carefully and watched closely to ensure consistency with the values they swore to from the start. That meant no co-packers or brokers, and no farmers the pair hadn’t met in person and walked the groves with.

And if they felt the only way to maintain their integrity was to put their plant in Thailand, where their coconuts are grown, so be it. By that time, Guilbert and Riboud were so committed to the Harmless Harvest mission that compromise would have been unthinkable.

Guilbert’s previous job before Harmless Harvest had been in the marketing department at L’Oreal, whose mission, as he describes it, was “finding problems that didn’t exist and offering products to solve those problems.” Riboud felt similarly frustrated in his previous career as a banker at Lazard Freres in New York City. Neither liked what Guilbert calls “the classic dichotomy” of working in corporations of questionable impact during the week and then spending weekends volunteering to atone for it.

So they quit and, in 2011 launched Harmless Harvest, a coconut water brand where simple organic sourcing wouldn’t be enough. The company would have to be ethical and authentic at every point in the process, something that started with the farmers. The pair built long-term relationships that worked on both sides. They put their plant in the region where their coconuts are grown and created 150 jobs with wages and conditions that meet Fair for Life accreditation. Fair for Life was essential because part of the idea of Harmless Harvest was to move beyond simply “giving back.”

 “If you are giving back, you are taking away in the first place,” Guilbert says. “How about giving them skin in the game from the start?”

That didn’t stop at the contract between the company and the farmer. Every farmer had to be certified Fair Trade within 12 months. Though some farmers balked, Guilbert says their partnership pays off for them in terms of stability. When demand catches up with supply, prices drop. Guilbert says that without a long-term contract to help them weather those dips, farmers will just switch to palm oil or mango or whatever the next fad crop might be.

Of course, organic was a requirement as well. “It didn’t make a lot of sense to make a food that was very good but was very bad for the environment,” Guilbert says.

Company values extend to the shelf. Harmless Harvest uses high-pressure pasteurization to keep coconut water tasting the way it does straight from the tree. In the end, that’s the test that Harmless Harvest had to pass, says organic veteran and  Stonyfield Farms founder Gary Hirshberg. “All you have to do is taste the difference between their coconut water and a bunch of pretenders and you will see for yourself that something very different is happening,” says Hirshberg, who is also an investor in Harmless Harvest.

Next up for the company applying its values to Japan’s shrinking organic tea market in hopes that new U.S. demand could be incentive to boost supply and keep more tea gardens organic. The new drink, Namacha, will bring a whole new set of challenges, but Guilbert and Riboud say they’ll face them with the same set of values.

Runner up

 With supplements aligning closer and closer with food, the differentiator is becoming quality organics. Companies can’t promote whole-food supplements without assuring consumers that those ingredients are of unquestionable quality. Orgenetics can produce plant-sourced letter vitamins including C that have long been synthetically produced. Minerals, also plant-sourced, round out multivitamins’ fide whole food claim. Products also include medicinal plants from the Ayurvedic tradition. Every product carries organic certification and techniques like supercritical extraction build on that value proposition.

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