It’s been two years since I wrote this article, reflecting on the state of the food industry, as seen at our largest trade show, Expo West.
Up until this last weekend, it was the most-viewed article I’ve ever shared on LinkedIn. My post, inviting the industry to collaborate on improving this platform, embracing the values 21st century attendees share around environmental impact, food waste, sustainability, inclusion, diversity and more, blew it out of the water by about three fold.
The challenges still hold, and while some progress has been made, we have a lot of work in front of us, especially when it comes to a more efficient platform, one that leverages 21st century technology to meet the needs of the 21st century consumer. It is a call to action for all of us.
Can we put a cap on materials used per booth? Can we offer carbon offsets to attendees? Can we offer credits to companies with the lowest environmental impact? Can we require that attending companies have boards that include women and people of color? Can we embrace the values of the B Corp community, values going viral across our industry? Can we upcycle the food waste from the trade show floor? Can we listen to the young entrepreneurs and get them on stage, because our future belongs to them?
There is incredible opportunity in front of all of us for radical collaboration to move this platform forward.
Written March 2019:
In the food industry, we have a trade show called “Expo West.” It’s been happening for over 30 years, and its size is massive, with over 80,000 attendees and over 5,000 companies presenting. This year, many commented that “the show has lost its soul.” Others were totally and completely jazzed, a real bifurcation.
And while I thought about doing another trends piece, it didn’t feel ‘value-add’ to talk about collagen and turmeric, given the enormity of what we are facing as an industry.
So after discussions with many from the industry, from food+tech to finance, here are the top 10 trends that could use some attention and some examples of the companies that are getting it right:
B-Corps: There are a lot of trends to cite from the show: CBD oil and ingredients, collagen, more turmeric, even more fermented foods, but few as important as the rise of companies seeking B-Corp certification. So what is it? “B Corps are for-profit companies certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. Today, there is a growing community of more than 2,100 Certified B Corps from 50 countries and over 130 industries working together toward 1 unifying goal: to redefine success in business.” MegaFood is one of the companies leading this transition, and as more and more companies in our industry look to this certification, the B-Corp certifying team should have a prominent place at the show, answering questions, accessible and available, encouraging participation in meaningful change. The show could provide an incentive for companies embracing B Corp in the form of a booth discount, employee discount or more.
Transparent Financing: As we grow the industry, we are only as good as our capital partners. We can’t fix a broken food system with a broken financial system. Companies should consider the source of their capital as carefully as they consider the source of their ingredients; otherwise, their returns are benefiting the very industries and companies we are trying to replace. New Resource Bank is a shining example of a financing source that is getting it right. An important question to ask: Where does your capital sleep at night? And perhaps even more importantly: Who else is it sleeping with?
Funding the Future: When you look at the non-white CEOs in our industry, they are few and far between. I reached out to a colleague to ask for a list of the ones that came to mind, and of the 5,000+ companies that participated in the show, she came back with less than 10. It’s shocking and also why I am so excited about Carla Vernon taking the lead of Annie’s and General Mill’s natural and organic division. Her own mother was a hidden figure at NASA, similar to the women in the film “Hidden Figures.” Her DNA has “change maker” markers in it. If our industry is truly going to meet the needs of 21st century families, it has to get past the “white savior” look it currently has and embrace diversity in its leadership. The future of our country is beautifully ethnic. Let’s fund that as an industry so that we can successfully grow the movement beyond the 5-6% of the food industry that it is today. So this serves as an open invitation to the investors walking the trade show floor. Otherwise, we run the risk of putting out white people solutions to white people problems.
Zero Waste – Follow the Super Bowl: While the show has taken some steps to tackle its environmental impact, it could follow the lead of the Super Bowl which declared the goal of “zero waste” for 2018. It’s time for Expo West to do the same. We are a trade show that talks about conscious capitalism, sustainability and the climate – non-stop – and we could learn a thing from the NFL. The 2018 Super Bowl launched a huge collaboration called Rush2Recycle that targeted zero waste at the US Bank Stadium in Minnesota. “The program successfully recovered 91% of all the trash. Nearly 63 tons of the 69 tons of game day waste were recovered through recycling or donation for reuse (62%) and composting (29%), according to the NFL.”
In order to reach the 91% recovery rate, the partners took these steps before the Super Bowl:
- US Bank Stadium replaced most of its food vessels, service products and utensils inventory for fans with compostable alternatives
- US Bank Stadium worked with Recycle Across America to design illustrated signs for new three-bin waste stations to show fans how to sort items at the stadium
- Recycling and compost bins were changed to become larger and more accessible to fans
- Trash bins were shrunk in size, encouraging fans to consider using alternative containers
- A LEED-certification-level waste audit last October identified materials for recovery in the stadium’s waste stream
- A zero-waste trial run took place at a December 2017 Minnesota Vikings home game
Steps taken after the Super Bowl included:
- The SMG team sorted all fan-generated waste into the right waste compactors
- The waste hauling partners collected and provided weight-tickets at each destination, including the recycling facility, the composting facility, and the waste-to-energy facility
- The waste data was reviewed by SMG and combined with the reuse and donation data collected by the NFL from their community partners
Supply Chain Focus: Every year we assemble our entire industry and fail to have a unified call to action. There is no greater issue confronting our industry than expanding our supply chain, given that less than 1% of U.S. farmland is organic. As the industry grows, rather than importing the organic ingredients needed, we should be growing them here, benefiting the U.S. farmers and economy. Companies like Kashi are tackling these issues on their own, but the goal of increased organic acreage benefits everyone – from Kellogg’s to General Mills to the tiniest of startups. It directly impacts their bottom line. Make a pledge to grow your organic acreage 30% by 2030. As Richard Branson always encourages, set a goal and write it down.
Diversify: Jennifer Garner, in her keynote with John Foraker on Friday, remarked that everyone at the show is so “clean and shiny”. As I looked around the room at the hundreds of people attending her keynote, it was also almost entirely white. Half of all U.S. kids are going to be non-white in two years time, by the year 2020. Once Upon a Farm wants to be the first company accepted into the WIC program. It’s that kind of creative thinking that is needed. The show does not reflect that, the industry does not reflect that. The running commentary at the dinner the night before was the same, too: “It’s so white.” What multi-cultural initiatives can be introduced? Can the Organic Center’s Dinner embrace diversity in its theme each year? Can it embrace an international menu? Can attendees do the same with their leadership teams? Can the show showcase the beautiful diversity of our country going forward? We do a great job showcasing the incredible foods and ingredients from other countries, let’s do the same with people.
The ‘Give A Shit’ Booth: This goes along with the zero waste issue, but the trash and food waste spinning off of the show was of epic proportions this year. The show could use a booth where people can sign up to be “zero waste.” Something along the lines of a commitment to reduce, reuse and recycle, perhaps with the ability to pick up a bamboo cup and plate to use at the show (I’m sure there is a supplier who would be happy to oblige!). Companies could be compensated for the number of employees who choose to participate. New Hope could offer some sort of kick back or discount to those that do. A compost bin could be available that is then delivered to a local farm at the end of the show. When you participate, your nametag is immediately marked, so that you are identified as someone who “Gives a Shit” beyond the financials. You only have to look to the remarkable success of Patagonia to see what happens when you fearlessly put the planet first.
Giveback: Maybe it was the hometown Super Bowl influence, but General Mills nailed it this year with their natural and organic booth. The entire thing was built incredibly mindful of its impact on the environment and with a focus on the reduction of waste. So much so, that the plants used to decorate their booth were going to a non-profit in the LA area. In fact, a few different companies were supporting the same non-profit. With so many non-profits working in the space and doing incredible advocacy work around clean food, gardening, reducing exposure to risky ingredients, I realized that it would benefit all involved to have a list of non-profits to whom companies could donate their products, materials, supplies after the show. With Will Allen having to shut the doors on his amazing program, it is important for companies to know just how many incredible organizations there are to support. The Salvation Army is even opening a grocery store in Baltimore (heads up: Expo East). Some other non-profits that come to mind are Made Safe and Civil Eats. It is impossible to understand how we as an industry failed Will Allen’s “Growing Power.” It would have been nice to have the NBA as a partner.
Packaging: I spent time with Scandinavian colleagues at the show this year, and they asked: “Why do your companies care so much about what goes in the products and so little about the packaging around them?” They were horrified at the chemicals that sit on top of and around the foods we eat, leaching into them. I told them that Kroger is doing a phenomenal job tackling this, in real time, as are a few others, and reminded them that while they did not have to fight to know what is in their food, we did and are only just now seeing the success of those efforts. First things first, I said, but duly noted. Let’s get on smarter packaging that doesn’t disrupt the health that the products inside are trying to support.
A Kroger Booth: Few other companies have done more to shift the huge, conventional brands than Kroger. It has a market cap big enough to present a real threat, so when they launched their Simple Truth line back in 2012, the big CPG brands noticed. Their Simple Truth line went from $0 to a billion in revenue in two years flat and is still growing. Their CEO, Rodney McMullen calls the division of the company “the bright spot” in its earnings. And with Jill McIntosh at the helm of their natural and organic division, the company rightfully has earned a prominent place in the show. Others are taking notice, so more change is coming.
What is clear this year is that the leadership is changing in the food industry. Both the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Organic Trade Association feel confused in their missions, as the dividing line between conventional and organic blurs. This is creating enormous opportunities for leadership by brands themselves in the marketplace. As companies like Kroger, Annie’s, Dr. Bronner and Patagonia step into that leadership space, one thing is certain:
Courage is contagious, and it is showing up in creative, regenerative new ways from a select number of brands in our industry that are certain to drive meaningful change for years to come.