Musings from Naturally Informed’s #SustainabilitySolutions Virtual Event

September 10, 2020

My education on the potential impact of sustainability and regenerative solutions in our healthy products (foods, beverages and supplements) marketplace took a huge leap forward a couple weeks ago, as TTC and WholeFoods magazine held our latest Naturally Informed two-day virtual event titled Driving Value Through Sustainability Across the Supply Chain. The event featured two powerful keynotes, the first by Josh Tickell, author and producer of Kiss the Ground the movie which debuts on Netflix in two weeks, and Tom Newmark, industry icon and co-founder of Finca Luna Nueva Lodge. 

We knew this virtual event would be a tough proposition to pitch, especially across the supplements space, not because the topic had little merit, but because in this constituency, actual spend behind issues such as sustainability has traditionally been low, and engagement top-down has been limited. Also, as my colleague Nathan Gray suggested in his blog a few weeks ago, do enough supplement consumers even really care?

That’s one of the reasons we were deliberate with our title and our curriculum, truly trying to articulate how to ‘drive value’ no matter where in the supply chain our attendees operated. From sustainable sourcing of botanicals, to ‘upcycling’ what would traditionally be food waste, to creating circular ecosystems to the plant-based movement and how it operates within the sustainability dynamic – the content early-on was excellent and from there we moved into truly regenerative organic agriculture, brands with novel standards like MegaFood, and movements like Rodale Institute leading with authenticity, culminating in strategies for food service and retail and the dangers of green-washing.

Our scope was broad, and we were intentional about including something for just about everyone.

Although I personally had numerous take-aways, here are a few of the most insightful moments:

  • We expected more brands and retailers to engage, especially at C-level. Sustainability is a tough ask though. A few of our panelists were able to successfully address the tension point between the responsibility and passion for the movement and planet with the cold realities of business practicality in uncertain times.
  • The simplicity of being aware and sustainable was emphasized by several speakers including our keynotes. The importance of multi-cropping, ‘listening’ to the soil, improving community infrastructure and fairly treating farmers was driven home. The concept of circularity, where the ‘poop stays in the loop’ and where smart shared platforms propagate and thrive was emphasized.
  • For retailers too, the message was rather clear: Deepen understanding of supply chains in order to support companies making a difference.
  • We were able to rip the band-aid off a few tension points such as green chemistry, fermentation, personalization, analog products such as ’meat’, protein factories and smart biochemistry.
  • We heard botanical pioneer Indena celebrate 100 years and discuss the many initiatives that have made their operations cutting edge and infinitely more environmentally friendly. And we discussed the middlemen in our supply chains that add little value, deliver opacity, lessen trust and increase environmental burden.
  • We discussed how compensation throughout a buying organization may disincentivize smart environmental decisions and even hinder net cost savings measures. Should and could more purchasers be rewarded where the savings they achieved aligned with environmental and sustainability programs?
  • Could more supply chain stories be developed that motivated better buying practices – for retailers and consumers? Could we eliminate non-value adding middlemen just by asking a few more questions?
  • From Turner Wyatt at the Upcycled Food Association, ‘we are fragmenting an already fragmented message’. From Tom Newmark – ‘plant in mounds, not rows’. From Rodale, watch out for the Regenerative Organic Certification, which is now out of beta piloting. From Sankofa Farms, ‘it all starts with the bees’. For MegaFood, it took a manifesto and farm investment scorecard. From Pure Strategies, the lesson for food deserts was that grocery can’t fix this. And in closing from FMCG gurus, through COVID, we saw natural resources replenish at a significant rate, showing that there’s hope after all.

Across our entire industry, there’s no question that the dialogue on both sustainability and regenerative agriculture is increasing. We though, are supposed to be the edge of the wedge, the tip of the spear. Are we collectively and individually doing enough in attributing the right type of value to this topic? Especially in the supplement realm, I’d suggest that would be an emphatic ‘no’.


Len Monheit is the CEO of Trust Transparency Center

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