In 1990, fresh out of college and confident in my youthful ideals the world could be a better place, I sought out a job in the natural products industry. Any business that existed to sell authentically pure foods and herbal remedies, grown in harmony with the earth and packaged with minimal intervention by mechanization, resonated for me. I was following my inner Truth at a time when people who ate "health food" were considered odd, "out there", and rebellious. No longer.
I took a job stocking shelves at The Green Earth, a well-worn but cozy 2,500 sq ft mom & pop health food store in Evanston, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. Some of our best sellers were shelf stable Edensoy & Vitasoy soy milk (refrigerated non dairy beverages would not be introduced for another 10+ years), Health Valley cereal, Barbara's fruit juice sweetened cookies (sugar was a villain), Santa Cruz Organic apple juice gallons, DeBoles pasta, Whitewave tempeh & Tofu Pups (both of which were only available in the freezer), Ginkgo Biloba, Ester C, carob bars (chocolate was taboo), and lots of macrobiotic foods. (For some readers this list is a walk down memory lane, for others a glimpse into top sellers of the past). Everyone who worked there, as well as our customers, were aligned to the philosophy and mission of respecting and caring for our bodies, farmers, and the planet holistically. We were early adopters making conscious choices, being mindful of our role in earth's bigger picture, and living out our convictions.
While I was born in the 60's, I was not a hippie of the 60's & 70's thriving in the fringe counter culture of that time - but thanks to many pioneers back then who had the vision and desire to bring to market their "good for you & the planet" products, the industry I entered in 1990 was starting to coalesce into an organized sector. Fast forward almost 26 years, our industry has reached more than $113 Billion at retail and approaching 8% of all foods & beverages bought in the US (according to SPINS). Our tenets and principles are no longer on the fringe, and we stand at the threshold of a breakthrough thanks to our own efforts converging with other forces.
With sales having surpassed $100 Billion, more than 70% of households buying organic products, and consumers seeking transparency from companies and desiring to connect with brands on a more purposeful level, an increasing number of conventional retailers and CPG brands are implicitly or not so implicitly acknowledging the legacy business in which they are anchored (and have billions of dollars at risk) is becoming irrelevant. In response, a select few are leading the way to embrace a wellness strategy more like that of "our" principles than of historically "theirs" (ie, "nutrition panel-based diets"). In short order we'll see many more doing the same by necessity. It will certainly take time to fully transform but it's already beginning to happen.
The shift most CPGs and conventional retailers are making is largely motivated by revenue and profit risks & opportunities. That's not necessarily a bad thing if in the end we realize this radical change, but it is a reminder of the inertia of the status quo. That said, if conventional businesses are more aligned to the way we see the world, the scale and influence of these businesses will help to accelerate the transformation of the industrialized food system, and to proliferate better ingredients, cleaner product portfolios, supply chain transparency, sustainable farming practices, animal welfare, careful processing methods, and more. This is what our industry has strived for from the beginning. We are about to gain a lot of large partners in the effort.
Another dynamic at work today is that virtually everything we think of as the norm, how things should be, the established way things work, the status quo, is being challenged not just incrementally but with radical transformation in part of course through technology, but also in part through the influence of exceptional thinking. We see it in the extreme views of certain presidential candidates in both parties either having or gaining momentum; in the international geo-political landscape of radical terrorists' messages resonating with an increasing number of disenfranchised youth who are being recruited to join them at an alarming rate; the very jaded impression a lot of Americans now have of Wall Street, and the desire to disassociate from the financial system, because their financial well-being dramatically declined or they saw loved ones out of work when the financial system collapsed in 2007. There are other examples, but the point is everything "established" is being questioned and the collective consciousness of society is receptive and wants change in all aspects. I am not suggesting we will swing all the way to an extreme, only that ideological voices are seeping further into society's dialogue, and society is responding with fairly big changes in what we perceive as acceptable. That's good news for our industry as well.
We are in fact an industry of fundamentals that we can be proud of, and against which other sectors can measure their progress. Whatever the challenges have been, our industry's principles have endured. Our industry is well positioned and poised for a breakthrough: we have reached a scale and engagement level that can no longer be called fringe, conventional brands and retailers are acknowledging market demands have changed, and many elements of society are demonstrating a willingness to accept radically different thinking and action. No longer a movement of principles on the fringe, our future is bright and our time has come to break through.
About The Author...
Michael Movitz has more than 25 years natural/organic products industry experience across retail, manufacturer, broker and market research organizations...