Gary Hirshberg: Changing the Culture and 'Stirring It Up'

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by: Joel Makower

I’ve long been an admirer of Gary Hirshberg, the idealistic and iconoclastic "CE-Yo" of organic yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm, which he co-founded in 1983. I first met Hirshberg a decade later, in 1993, when researching my book about corporate social responsibility, Beyond the Bottom Line.

I recall being impressed at the time by his passion and commitment, but also his humbleness and honesty. "I think whatever your definition is of social responsibility," he told me at the time, "if the message is, ‘Look how great we are,’ then you’re missing the boat." It was a refreshing change from so many companies’ arm-waving, self-congratulatory approaches to social responsibility, both then and now.

Hirshberg not only didn’t miss the boat, he caught a wave, becoming the market leader in organic yogurt, the third best-seller after Dannon and Yoplait, with steady annual growth. In 2001, Stonyfield hitched a ride with a much bigger vessel, the French food conglomerate Danone, which subsequently took controlling interest in the company but left Hirshberg firmly at the helm. Indeed, in the deal, Danone ended up with about 80% of the company, but Hirshberg ended up with majority control of his board.

All of which further empowered Hirshberg to pursue, and align, his dual missions of commerce and environmental sustainability. His $300 million-a-year company — built with almost no traditional advertising — has been carbon neutral since 1996, the first company to do so, long before it became corporate chic. And it’s not just by writing a check to offset its emissions. Over the past decade, the company (via the tireless efforts of Hirshberg’s sister, Nancy, Stonyfield’s VP of Natural Resources) has reduced its facility energy use and the associated carbon emissions per pound of product by one-third. Stonyfield’s products are 100% organic, and it has helped hundreds of family farms convert from conventional farming. The company has worked to minimize waste, going so far as to collect used yogurt cups and lids and recycle them into useful products. And it uses its product labeling for activism, devoting precious real estate on yogurt lids to advance environmental causes.

Hirshberg’s company has been an ardent supporter of such causes. Stonyfield’s Profits for the Planet program has given 10% of company profits to organizations "that help protect and restore the environment." Hirshberg got Danone to agree to maintain the program for at least 10 years after he leaves the company, whenever that is; he has no plans to do so. And he has funded his own campaigns, lately focusing on climate change. (I sit on the board of Climate Counts, which Hirshberg launched last year to rate companies on their climate commitment and performance. In 2006, I also co-wrote and executive produced a Stonyfield funded Internet movie on climate change.)

I talked with Hirshberg recently on the occasion of his just-published book, Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World. It was a wide-ranging conversation, focusing not just on his company but the larger worlds of green marketing and green business. (An excerpt from that interview can be heard on GreenBiz Radio.)

I don’t usually care for books like this — the success stories of socially-minded entrepreneurs. There’s been a steady stream of them over the years, and they tend to border on vanity publishing. So, I was pleased that Hirshberg’s offering doesn’t follow in this mold. It’s an easy, enjoyable read, inspiring and informative, integrating his personal journey with insights and takeaways for others.

It’s clear that Hirshberg’s zeal goes well beyond yogurt, or organics, or climate change. He sees his mission in part to infect other businesses — both entrepreneurs and conglomerates — to help them understand the potential for producing products, and profits, while following the basic tenets of environmental sustainability and social responsibility.

Perhaps ironically, Hirshberg’s entrepreneurial journey was inspired by the food giant Kraft: After touring a Kraft-sponsored pavilion on the future of food at Disney World’s Epcot Center in Florida in 1982, he decided he wanted to build a company that was everything Kraft was not. He was struck by the fact that 25,000 people came through that exhibit every day — about the same number that visited the New Alchemy Institute, the nonprofit he ran at the time, every year. As he told me: "I said to my mom, who was the senior buyer down at the Epcot Center, ‘I need to become Kraft, if I want to move my values and my ecologic proposition into the mainstream. I’ve got to have that kind of reach.’  I wanted to become as efficient as they were in reaching the consumer."

Funny thing is, he pretty much did it. Fourteen years after that epiphany, Stonyfield passed Kraft in sales of yogurt, and has really never looked back. Its yogurt business is now five times Kraft’s.

But there’s an even more delicious irony. Kraft has recently begun making organic products: Macaroni & Cheese, Cheese Singles, Oreos, and more. Says Hirshberg: "The reality is that while I set out to be like Kraft, I’m now very pleased to tell you they’ve set up to be like us."

Talk about just desserts.

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