The Ex-Factor Seminar: Should the natural foods industry automatically de-list ethical brands when they are acquired by multinationals ?

Having worked in the international food industry now for over thirty years I have been able to observe it’s cyclical nature. When confronted with a challenge to the status quo the classic progression goes: ignore (hope it goes away), ridicule (why would you want to eat that?), assimilate (hmm…maybe there’s money to be made here), acquire (we can offer you better distribution) and move on (of course we have always supported natural / organic / Fairtrade – delete where applicable). So I have always assumed that my work in helping to develop small, funky, ethical brands would tend to result in them being taken over by bigger companies. And so it has proved – Green & Black’s bought by Cadbury’s and now Kraft, Rachel’s bought by Deans, Small Planet bought by General Mills, Clipper bought by Flemings, Lyme Regis Foods bought by Glisten plc and now Raiso, Go Organic bought by Unilever.

One of the best scenes in the new film Food Inc (www.foodincmovie.com, go see) comes when Gary Hirshberg, CEO of US organic producers Stoneyfield Farm, is pictured walking the aisles at Natural Products Expo, the American equivalent of our own Natural Products Europe trade show. Gary points to each company stand in turn and lists out who has bought them. “Kelloggs, Palmolive…” , the list goes on. Gary himself sold to massive French dairy company Danone and is unapologetic about having done so, pointing out that big businesses enter the  organic sector by acquiring and growing small businesses and this increases the amount of land which is farmed organically and reduces pesticide use.

Talking at The National Health Conference in June 2008 US retailing guru Danny Wells was emphatic that the natural food industry’s role is to nurture small brands, give them space to grow but not to get too possessive when the same brands start appearing in supermarkets at lower prices. Danny’s view was that the forward looking natural food retailers should then concentrate on promoting successor brands not yet widely available through other channels.

The recent takeover of Cadbury’s by Kraft and the implications for Green & Black’s has intensified this discussion. I was taken aback by the vehemence of comments left by consumers on blogs and on Twitter. “Here in the office we’ve only just worked out that the Cadburys-Kraft buyout now also means that Kraft owns Green and Blacks. UGH.” “So you sold out to a multinational that has now been bought by another multinational. Now I know this, I shall not be buying Green & Black’s any more. Why should I give my money to a corporation whose products are mostly unethical? There are plenty of other Fair Trade brands out there.” Not everyone who buys a product worries about the ethics of the company that has produced it. Those consumers who are sufficiently engaged (or enraged) to air their views online may only be a tiny minority – we don’t know.

And the products have not changed – they are still natural, organic, Fairtrade. Every day shoppers come into natural food shops wanting to buy these products. They probably buy other things whilst they are in the shop. If they could not buy them they might go elsewhere. Who are we to deny customers the products they have been buying for years just because we take exception to the ultimate owners of the brand?

Clearly this conundrum is too much for my limited brain so I have put together a panel of four industry experts – two manufacturers, two retailers – to debate the issue at the Natural Products Europe show. The panel is Craig Sams (Green & Black’s), Colin Mace (Booja Booja), Peter Langsam (Planet Organic) and John Grayson (Earth Natural). There will be plenty of time for contributions from the audience so if you have strong views on this issue then please come along to the Pillar Hall in Olympia on Monday 12th April at 1315 and join in the fun.

To give you a flavour of what we’ll be talking about I asked the panel for their initial thoughts. Peter Langsam, Buyer at Planet Organic is clear. “Let the customers decide. The natural foods and organic market has become challenging enough for independents. We sell food and health and body care lines that meet our strict product standards, whether they are from a tiny local artisan producer or a large multinational corporation.” Retailer John Grayson of Earth Natural veers more towards supporting smaller companies. “Being a small independent retailer is a constant balancing act. In an ideal world we would like to stock products exclusively from fully ethical small companies, but we cannot afford to turn away the significant business that bigger brands bring to us, nor to alienate customers who expect to find them in our shop!”. Craig Sams has a very different viewpoint. “A farmer grows organic wheat which benefits the environment, the climate and biodiversity: so  what if that wheat ends up in a Ritz cracker or in a loaf of artisan sourdough?  Organic farming gives us a sustainable future and helps us avoid unhealthful processing.  If multinationals support a better way of doing things why should we punish them for it?”.

Colin Mace tries to put the issue in perspective: “It is a wonderful achievement to run a successful shop offering organic, wholesome food that helps consumers meet their dietary needs and I admire any wholefood shop owner who aspires to do any more than this. One wholefood shop (or one chocolate company) cannot transform the world to the extent the idealists amongst us would wish, thus each of us choose from amongst our basket of priorities in guiding our decisions. The challenge lies in ensuring our choices are conscious, intentional and coherent.” Debating how we ensure our choices are ‘conscious, intentional and coherent’ will be quite a challenge, but I look forward to having a go – see you on April 12th !