Sustainability Series: Newman’s Own Organics
July 30, 2013
When Nell Newman and business partner Peter Meehan started Newman’s Own® Organics: The Second Generation® in 1993 as a separate division under the Newman brand, they had no idea how fast the demand for their organic products would grow. Newman’s Own Organics became an independent company in 2001. What started with pretzels and grew to include other snack foods has now expanded to many other organic items including coffee, tea, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, organic dried fruit, and pet food. We talked to Meehan about the challenges of defining sustainability in today’s market.
How does your business define sustainability?
I’m careful of how I use the word sustainability because I think we have credibility with our customers. I want to make sure we are not joining the greenwashing that goes on in this industry. The concept of sustainability isn’t always that clear to consumers and can be confusing. Some brands become so concerned about sustainability that they forget about their product. They are too mission driven and people don’t buy mission alone. We are mission driven, but we know consumers value us for the quality and value of our food products. Sustainability is a dividend that’s paid, not a reason people buy products from a particular brand.
We’ve never defined sustainability within our company. We are certified organic and we’ve been in the organic food business for 20 years. Back in the early days, sustainable agriculture was synonymous with organic. Then organic began to change, blossomed and became certified; then finally there were USDA standards. Organics went on it’s own path, defined itself earlier, and gave itself rules, regulations and accountability.
Sustainability is still somewhere out there, and more like the term “all natural” – it’s allowed to be self defined based on whoever is using the term. To me sustainability is can you be nimble enough – especially in food – to see what’s coming up, make those products for your consumers and sustain yourself for the next day and the next generation. Can you have a repeat performance? That’s sustainability. Our company’s platform for sustainability is creating food products for consumers.
How are you incorporating sustainable practices into your business?
One of the things we’ve done since the beginning is copacking. It sounds mundane, but thousands of brands co-pack. When you really look at it, it’s a smart use of resources because you’re not building another plant somewhere. You’re using existing plants. This is something that the consumer doesn’t usually see or know about, but it’s very important. We co-pack with 15 manufacturers in 5 countries. We didn’t go out and make another imprint on the land with another facility.
None of these facilities were doing anything certified organic when we showed up. They got certified and now they make our products and we didn’t have to build another building to get it done. I’m proud of this process because it showed me that you can take ideas, and if you can be articulate enough and passionate enough, it’s contagious and you can get it done. It works. Paul Newman wasn’t sure he wanted to be in the food business, and co-packing was a great way to be adaptable and get in the business carefully. Now, we can go from cookies to pretzels to chocolate to dog food because we don’t own one plant that just makes crackers. To me, that’s very sustainable.
Any nationally distributed brand is moving products all over the country and it’s not efficient. There’s a lot of waste just in that. I look at it and ask how can we be slightly more redeemable than the other guy? It’s not a race, but you want to do the best you can in the situation you are in. There are some parts of our business that we are proud of, like our use of organic ingredients. We also know that, for example, the choice of some of our packaging, which preserves the quality of the product, may not be recyclable. However, consumers don’t want stale Fig Newmans. If you give them biodegradable packaging and the cookies are stale, you’ll lose that customer and not sell the product containing the organic ingredients.
There are going to be things that are challenging. That’s how we look at it, and we feel like we can have a profound influence. There’s only 28 people on the Newman’s Own Organic payroll. That’s very good for sustainability. Think about it in terms of sales per person. Thousands of people get up every day and work for our brand at facilities all across the country and in other countries, but they are not on our payroll. We feel we have efficiency by using a little bit of a lot of other people, and that’s been very good for us. The dividend for this is that it allows more people to participate in our brand’s growth. They also act as spokespeople for our company. The company that packaged our pretzels 20 years ago still packs them today. They are great partners. They helped us sustain momentum in ways we could not do on our own. That’s another way I look at sustainability.
What are your short term and long term goals?
I like to think that the answer has to do with the “do no harm” code for doctors. We try and look at things carefully, putting our experience on top of new opportunities. We try to avoid things that haven’t worked before or are not where we want to go, and we hopefully wait for the right opportunity to come along. It’s like pushing marbles across a big desk. Some marbles fall off, some hit the finish line and become products. We just try and pick the right things at the right time. And more importantly, we try to avoid projects that might burden us and make us less nimble when the right thing comes along. It’s like that saying – being in business is being in business long enough to know what business you should be in – that’s really about sustainability. For Paul Newman, his timing to let us do organics 20 years ago was perfect. We’ve turned it into a brand that’s lasted all this time. Sometimes you just have to stick around long enough to see things come to fruition.
Where do you think you’ll have the biggest impact?
I think we’ve had an impact showing people that organic food can taste good. We saw an opportunity to create traditional treats (snacks, cookies, and confections) using organic ingredients. That was unique 20 years ago. Our product line was a gateway for new consumers to try other more nutritious organic products. We know we are in treats but it does help get people to say, hey, I can eat that, and who knows what the next thing is that they will try. Certified organic has been our calling card. Our slogan is “Great tasting food that happens to be organic.” Paul’s mission never got in the way of the food. He knew if he had good food, it would be the engine for the company’s charitable mission. His goal was to generate money for charity.
How do you measure your progress?
We look at our sales, at our distribution, and our relationships with manufacturers and growers.
How do retailers factor into your efforts?
Retailers want products that sell and turn. They are curious about what we’re doing and what our new products are but if it doesn’t work; they can’t sustain you long enough for you to figure out what you should do. You have to come to them with the right products at the right price. Sometimes if you’re at the forefront of something, you have to be patient. Not everyone’s in the same boat with you and I’ve seen some great products that just showed up too early, and went out of business before consumers caught on.
Why are sustainable business practices important to the food industry?
“Everybody eats” is my slogan. Eating is not optional. So it’s important that we’re doing the best we can. I still think taking care of farmland is really important, and we also need to take care of ground water. There’s a bumper sticker that’s popular in Santa Cruz where we are based: “Everybody’s downwind.” And I think that’s really true. It will hit us right in our stomach if we don’t take care of our resources. I hope we all can look at that and take initiatives to sustain the source of our food. Eating at the expense of the soil isn’t a good equation.
Why are sustainable business practices important to the consumer?
Consumers are very smart and getting smarter. We attract some of the smartest consumers on the planet, so we have to do a good job. Sustainability is part of that. You can’t change your colors every 20 minutes and consumers want a brand they can count on. We think there’s a positive reaction to our activities. There is so much misinformation out there as well. We need to educate consumers to make people more thoughtful about their choices.