The First Night of the Party, or the Last?

Maybe it was a side-effect of the many recently decriminalized aromas wafting through the various locations of Natural Products Expo West, but there was a lightness to the gathering, a feeling that, when it comes to the long-marginalized natural and organic section of the store, someone had let in the air and the sun.

There were long, late parties, dancing and drinking and an overall vibe that lay somewhere between the parking lot of a Phish show and that orgiastic party in The Matrix that the underground humans have the night before the giant robot bugs break in through the ceiling and try to kill everybody.

klineman-imageBut unlike that Apocalyptic scene, the mood in Anaheim wasn’t desperation, it was celebration: young food and beverage companies like Barkthins and Runa were closing investment rounds, and slightly less callow operations like Suja and Califia Farms showed the growth to justify the backing they’ve received. Brands that are just evolving outside of incubation channels, like Mamma Chia, Bhakti Chai and Tumeric Alive were treated like the belle of the ball. Buyers from mainstream stores like Target and Walmart and, yes, even interiors store HomeGoods prowled the aisles for the kind of assortment additions that can make them more current, in tune with the times.

There’s no doubt that there’s reason for celebration for the companies lined up at the tables at Expo West, and there’s equal reason for optimism for the companies we’ll be seeing in a few weeks at BevNET Live: the great waves of dietary and environmental awareness, improved marketing, and changing tastes are moving shoppers to include a greater proportion of their purchases in synch with the offerings of the show attendees.

Remarkably, the percentage of organic as part of the overall food basket remains less than 10 percent – much as the share of craft beer isn’t much more than 10 percent as well, but the indications are clear: better-crafted, innovative products that have a conscious component are at a tipping point.

But the concern has to remain that this is still largely a phenomenon that is responsible to an upper-middle-class client base. Despite what many companies have taken to calling the “democratization” of brand families, many of the goods for sale – even the ones that have penetrated conventional channels – remain high-end indulgence items that fail to fulfill the day-to-day needs of those who have been left behind by the economic recovery. The quinoa-ization of the pantry isn’t yet a widespread one; not all of us can afford to – or even expect to – experiment in low-calorie fresh-pressed lemon and kale cleanses when we’re more concerned about getting sufficient calories into our children’s lunchboxes.

Organics remain a huge hope for the food system in two ways: they point toward a future where farming provides for the needs of our population without decimating biodiversity, and they serve as a gateway of information to the larger issues of environmental responsibility that threaten us all. Consumers who are aware of the positive ramifications of fair trade and GMO-Free, amont others, are legitimizing social approaches to commerce that are political as well as commercial acts.

And all that is great, but the beginning of the gold rush that so many were celebrating in Anaheim can’t be one that creates a new, organic hierarchy that leaves much of the population behind.

After all, in The Matrix, all of humanity had to fight the bugs. Getting rich for living the right way, for providing a mere fraction of the population with eco-chic wares, isn’t going to solve the global problems that much of the movement formed to address. Even the righteous get munched if we leave all the rest behind. Yes, it’s great to see brands changing the stores and sending signals to the world. Let’s just not forget, though, when we celebrate, that we can’t just fly above the fray, no matter how enticing the air currents might be.