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Food for Thought: How Brands, Farmers, Entrepreneurs Are Reshaping Food and Ag

Andrew Winston (left) moderated a panel on how labelling and marketing affects food and farming at SB'18 Vancouver. | Image credit: Sustainable Brands

Last week, over 2,000 representatives from our global community of sustainability practitioners, brand strategists, product and service innovators, thought leaders and other change-makers converged at SB’18 Vancouver to share their latest insights on a multitude of themes pertinent to all of those committed to improving business around the world. Here, we dig into the supply chains, test kitchens, labels and apps behind good food.

What’s on your label? How marketing affects food & farming

By Marissa Rosen

Today, food companies are making sourcing decisions that are changing the future of agriculture. Andrew Winston, author of The Big Pivot and Green to Gold, moderated a Tuesday lunch session exploring how marketing affects food & farming, sponsored by the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA). He opened by comparing coffee to the entire food supply chain and explained how misinformed marketing efforts can effectively stifle the sustainability movement when it comes to other consumer products.

The panel, which included Cassidy Johnston (Sustainability Officer at USFRA), Roian Atwood (Director of Sustainability at Wrangler), and Matt Carstens (SVP of Sustainability at Land O’Lakes), went on to discuss the interconnectivity of sourcing decisions, food label claims and “misinformation” about U.S. farmers and ranchers. As could be expected, this topic and the opinions shared brought heated discussion and some backlash from members of the audience that presented opposing industry views.

Carstens discussed the connection of farmers through the value chain to consumers. He challenged the audience: “Do you realize that if we lost some of our technology (GMOs), we’d go backwards 10 to 20 years in agriculture in terms of sustainability?” He stated that many agricultural crops previously were sprayed with twice the amount of pesticides as they are today, and challenged us to think more critically about transparency through the tools that are available today such as icons, QR codes and brands. Carstens does not believe that “organic” or “cage-free,” for instance, are true indicators of food quality, as absence claims do not actually tell you what is in a product.

“Food is ag. Ag is food. We’ve got consumers officially confused and thinking absence claims are health claims, and that’s wrong,” he asserted.

Atwood said the expanse of labels and sub-labels in the textile industry can invoke a certain amount of believable sustainability cred, but unless they are specific and accredited, such as regenerative organic agriculture and responsible down standards, consumers still have to sort through the details. The textile chain starts in the field, and a major issue is excess runoff of nutrients due to conventional agriculture methods, which do not consider the longer term — and place too high a value on quick profits. However, many stakeholders do care about sustainability in textiles, and we already have technologies available that can profoundly improve our fields, waterways and the clothing product lifecycle.

Johnston then discussed her role as a mother, rancher and advocate, tying her work into Carstens’ sentiments on the dairy industry: “When people see a label like GMO-free or organic, they assume that if it doesn’t have that label, it’s inferior.” Consumers could apply an idea about a label that might not be true — for instance, the “organic” beef label brings with it no animal welfare standards. Johnston claims that the real difference between the organic label and conventional might just be that one was able to pay for the USDA certification. The USDA is working on a “natural” specification, which right now just means a product is minimally processed. Johnston takes great pride in the traditions of her family farm and supports others in the industry around the country. “We want our children to be able to farm and ranch on our property, so we have to innovate and improve. Sustainability is not just a buzzword.”

Improving the value of supply chains with climate-friendly, transformative farming

By Mia Overall

Image credit: The Land Institute

Soil might not be the first thing you’d think would bring together brands from the food, fashion and beauty sectors. But in fact, the inputs of all three start in the ground, and that was one of the things this Wednesday afternoon session drove home. Tim Greiner, CEO of Pure Strategies, moderated a panel of five brands – The North Face, MetaWear, Lush, Natura and Annie’s – each with compelling stories about their foray into regenerative agriculture. Strong questions from a technically savvy audience made it a dynamic session.

Before turning it over to the brands to tell their stories, Greiner reminded everyone about the five principles of soil health:

  1. keep soil covered year round
  2. minimize soil disturbance
  3. plant diversity
  4. keep plants growing on the ground year round
  5. integrate livestock on the ground where possible

First up, James Rogers, Director of Sustainability at The North Face, explained that North face knows its biggest impact comes from materials. They’ve partnered with a local ranch that raises sheep using farming practices that help sequester carbon in the soil. The Cali Wool Beanie  now its most sustainable product, uses wool only from this farm, and boasts a cool label that tells the story of how carbon is sequestered. “It’s been a journey, and for an approach like this to work for The North Face, we’ll have to find a way to make it scale,” Rogers said.



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Next up, Marci Zaroff, founder of MetaWear — the first GOTS-certified and Cradle-to-Cradle certified turnkey apparel manufacturer in North America — shared how its Reset pilot program is working with 88 farmers in India to help them adopt regenerative agriculture practices. Farmers are learning to move away from genetically modified seeds and chemical fertilizers — which reduces their input costs — and instead use manure, cover crops and low-tillage practices, which increase their yields. Farmers make up to 90 percent more money and reduce social and environmental harm. “This whole movement is about connecting source to story and at the same time being able to ‘storydo,’ so that there can be a win-win,” Zaroff said.

Gavin Hollet, Manager of Lush’s Supply Chain Investments, shared that Lush is investing in its future supply chain through the Sustainable Lush Fund. The Fund invests 2 percent of raw materials spend per year in projects around the world that support regenerative agribusiness and put more money in the hands of farmers. Through one project in northern Uganda, it has invested in designing, planting and scaling a variety of different agroforestry systems. The locally managed team has a processing plant that is now crushing oil seeds from the moringa plant for sale to Lush.

Paula Contim of Natura Cosmeticos, Brazil’s largest cosmetics company and the first publicly traded B Corp, inspired the group with an agroforestry project designed to counter mono-cropping of oil palm. Natura embarked on a 20-year project with a cooperative of smallholder farmers to intersperse native Amazonian fruit trees with the oil palm trees. So far, their productivity actually exceeds that of a monoculture system. “This project shows we can produce palm in a more sustainable way, not having to use chemical fertilizers, because nature is showing us how to produce,” Contim said.

Finally, Shauna Sadowski, Head of Sustainability at Annie's, shared her story of how the General Mills family starting asking itself how it can think about how food is grown in a way that brings all brands together. “I want to bring farming closer to food,” Sadowski said, “and elevate the importance of farming and agriculture in the sustainability debate.” General Mills is doing this across several brands by converting traditional cropland to regenerative organic cropland in South Dakota, by partnering with the Land Institute to commercialize kernza, a perennial grain that sequesters carbon in the soil and by partnering with the Savory Institute to create the first verified regenerative supply chain.

Great questions from the moderator and audience highlighted common challenges and approaches across the companies — including the importance of showing farmers that the economics work. Farmers learn best from other farmers, so reaching scale will take time.

Meanwhile, with terms such as “soil matters” and “climate beneficial wool,” brands are starting to tell the story to consumers.

TangoTab: A win-win-win solution for feeding hungry communities

By Hannah Furlong

Andre Angel | Image credit: Sustainable Brands

Later that evening, Andre Angel, CEO (“Chief Eating Officer”) of TangoTab, took the main stage to share how he created a for-profit business structure that helps alleviate hunger and helps local businesses.

He got the idea when he visited a food pantry six years ago. Where he expected to see people who were homeless and struggling, he was surprised to see as many who were well-dressed — people he never would have expected to need a food pantry. He asked if he could speak to some of them to learn why they were there, and heard stories that enlightened him to the stark realities that the recession had brought. To this day, one in particular stands out: A man named David, a single father, lost his job as a mortgage officer just two months after buying his home and couldn’t find another job. When Angel met him, David hadn’t eaten in three days and his 10-year-old son had to convince him to eat their last package of ramen noodles. Angel learned that over 46 million people in the U.S. go to bed hungry, including 15 million children. He decided to use his years of experience as a serial entrepreneur to help solve hunger.

As Angel contemplated ways to create a financially self-sustaining solution, it occurred to him that many restaurants fail because of empty seats. In the U.S., an estimated 60 percent of restaurants fail by year three, despite that nearly $800 billion is spent in restaurants each year. Angel decided to create an app that would help restaurants find people to fill seats, help people find restaurants that are giving back, and feed people in need.

TangoTab lists participating restaurants with available seats (and lets them share promotions to draw people in), and people looking for somewhere to eat can book their seats through the app. TangoTab charges a small fee to the restaurant for the customers they attract, donates some to a food pantry and uses the rest to fund the app’s upkeep and the company’s other initiatives.

Angel considers it a win-win-win-win: Restaurants benefit from increased revenue and enhanced yield management to bring repeat clients when they need them most; diners can feel good about their choices of where to dine out and sometimes benefit from special offers or rewards; food charities gain a sustainable stream of income; and TangoTab furthers its mission to alleviate hunger by bringing the parties together and being financially self-sufficient. Angel says the customer acquisition cost (CAC) of using TangoTab is less than $1 — which seems particularly affordable given increasing consumer preferences for socially preferable products and services.

Since its launch in 2011, TangoTab has fed over 2.5 million people.

“Orange is the color of hunger, which is why we chose that for our branding,” Angel explained. But they do little in the way of marketing beyond branding and outreach initiatives. “[People ask,] ‘How much do you spend on advertising?’ The answer is 0. Because everyone who uses this app will share it with three others.”

TangoTab further adds value by collecting consumer- and restaurant-generated data and ‘connecting the dots’ to deliver actionable knowledge for restaurants — from the demographics, dining habits and social reach of patrons to how weather, local events and foot traffic affect restaurant capacity and utilization.

As for its purpose, TangoTab has been building on its core functions with outreach initiatives such as Feed the City, a program unrelated to the business model other than to get people involved in their local communities and making food for those in need; and Farm the City, a program that helps invest in urban farming efforts (especially in food deserts), employs veterans, harvests food for people in need, and improves local food system logistics.

In closing, Angel encouraged the audience to think about how their businesses could integrate something like TangoTab’s model into their own model(s) and think about the story their companies want to tell to help ‘sell’ their solution.

IKEA concocting the ‘future of food’

By Barbara Everdene

Brendan Seale | Image credit: Sustainable Brands

In addition to its home furnishings business, IKEA operates what might be the world’s largest self-serve cafeteria business. According to Brendan Seale, Sustainability Manager of IKEA Canada, that amounts to something in the order of 660 million cafeteria visitors per year. Before he launched into his story on IKEA’s food transformation, he acknowledged the mega trends in agriculture driving the need for change; and Paul Hawken’s book Drawdown, which puts a major emphasis on the food and agriculture industry to come up with solutions to global warming. Seale’s main message was that IKEA is putting its savvy into the challenge of making the transition to plant-based foods as compelling and attractive as possible to consumers, to encourage a more rapid transition to sustainability.

Here are some of the ways IKEA’s test kitchen is creating the ‘fast food of the future’:

  • Plant-based meat analogues, including veggie meatballs and hotdogs (amazing fact: a veggie meatball has 1/30th the carbon footprint of its meat counterpart)
  • Plant-based ice creams
  • Engaging employees in growing food in stores (including vertical growing, which takes 98 percent less water – very cool)
  • Removing single-use plastics
  • Food waste watcher programs for employees to report on and crowd-create data on waste to feed into continuous improvement systems (in a selection of pilot stores, this has already saved on waste equivalent to 1 million meals)
  • Zero-emission home delivery

Marissa Rosen is the founder of Climate Social, LLC, a communications firm at the intersection of digital marketing and sustainability. Climate Social designs strategies to build compelling brands, promote high profile events, and engage networks from around the… [Read more about Marissa Rosen]


Mia Overall is a sustainable business consultant, founder of Overall Strategies, based in New York City. She has advised global companies around the world on their sustainability strategies, initiatives, reports, and helped them drive sustainability through supply chains,…
[Read more about Mia Overall]


Hannah Furlong is an Editorial Assistant for Sustainable Brands, based in Canada. She is researching the circular economy as a Master's student in Sustainability Management at the University of Waterloo and holds a Bachelor's in Environment and Business Co-op. Hannah…
[Read more about Hannah Furlong]


Barbara is a community planner with a background in environmental, social and Indigenous planning and activism in Canada and internationally. She is an Associate of Reeve Consulting, where she supports clients to create, improve and share the success of their sustainable supply…
[Read more about Barbara Everdene]


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