Natural Advantage

I’ve been aware of Gary Hirshberg as an increasingly magnetic figure for several years, ever since I was a police reporter covering crack dealers in northeast Massachusetts.

At the time, Hirshberg’s yogurt company, Stonyfield Farm, was just begging to flex its muscles on the national scene, and his presence just across the border in New Hampshire made him one of the area’s biggest business stories. A friend on our business staff went to speak with him and wrote a profile. Speaking with me afterwards, my friend told me he’d bought into Hirshberg’s rap all the way, that the guy was a real mensch (good guy, to you non-Yids), and that he’d be surprised if he spent his life working in yogurt.

Well, it’s a few years later and Gary Hirshberg’s become a pretty rich guy, and he’s still working in yogurt, and also, as we note in our cover story this month, in beverages. But I’m starting to understand what my buddy meant – Gary Hirshberg works in the food and beverage industry, of course, but he’s also in the industry of ideas. They’re the same kind of ideas that inspired entrepreneurs like Ben & Jerry and Alice Waters – the idea that good products and good works can go hand in hand, and that food and drink can be more than individual sustenance, but something that sustains community and ecology, as well.

We get a lot of notifi cations from companies that they’re getting involved in one kind of charitable project or another, and that we should publicize it, and we try to do it when we can. And we know that when mainstream companies do good works – and they do, with a pleasantly increasing frequency – they can really improve people’s lives.

But we also see some companies that are founded on do-gooder principals, and we like that, as well, because they take the business model and invert it, trying to, as they all say, “do well by doing good.”

We don’t know which way is better. As I said, the big companies, when they go into action, can do a lot of good. But it’s interesting to see that we’ve reached a point where some companies that do well by doing good are starting to do not just well, but really well. So we thought we should hear from at least one of them, because we’re here to make sure that you do really, really well, as well.

We’re living in a time when consumers are starting to really question the impact of what goes into their bodies, and individual products and product arrays supplied by retailers reflect that.

If Hirshberg and his compadres are correct, we’re moving in a direction in which products and product arrays will have to take into account all their ramifications, not just consumption. Production, marketing, transportation, all might be factored into the social and environmental impact equation. If the mensches have the right idea, the retailers who capitalize on these products will do very well, indeed. I don’t know if it’s that simple. But as we enter the next sell-in season, it might very well be food for thought.