Race, Ethnicity, and Natural Food: An Issue, An Assessment, An Opportunity

NaturalFood copy“You know, I’ve never thought about that question before.”

That’s what I’ve been hearing almost exclusively lately when I ask whether there’s anything alarming about the lack of racial and ethnic diversity that I found remarkably easy to observe at Natural Products Expo West. Since flying home, it’s a question I’ve been asking a lot.

And I’m finding agreement: once the question is asked, people suggest that it’s an issue that the industry needs to start thinking about, and discussing, and fast, before it moves from quizzical observation to systemic fault line.

It’s not by intent, most agree. The natural products business is, after all, one that has moral underpinnings. The business is rooted in change and 60s idealism. The companies strive to offer healthier, better for the environment, cause oriented, conscious products – and those ideals comprise much of their value to consumers and investors alike. Their anti-establishment origins are what set them apart. But the business isn’t only in rebel mode anymore: it’s a maturing sector of the CPG world, and with so many people eager to join it, either through entrepreneurial enterprises or involvement with its more established companies, the time has come. The natural products industry must demonstrate a better commitment to racial and ethnic diversity, from hiring and recruitment to product and ingredient sourcing. In these areas, the industry, one that has set itself up as a model, isn’t meeting its own ideals.

Notes no less an outlaw than Bob Dylan, “to live outside the law, you must be honest.” It’s time for the outlaw companies that built the industry to look in the mirror and consider if they see an honest reflection of who they want to be.

From a moral and an economic standpoint, things need to change. Morally, because the industry can’t be a closed shop – society is too diverse, race is too important and active an issue in the wider world, and the companies in the sector are too in tune with too many other conscious principles to ignore their potential to be leaders in this discussion. Economically, there is much at stake, from a competitive standpoint, and also in regard to talent: there’s a proven upside to bringing in different voices and experiences to the buyer’s office, the marketing department, the innovation team, the boardroom. That’s why other, more established industries have tried to incorporate diversity as a financial advantage.

Walk around Natural Products Expo West and you see that the blood, guts, and backbone of the industry, the people in decision-making ownership, sales, financing, and other gatekeeper roles, does not even match the limited (but increasing) racial diversity of its consumer base. It’s not through the industry’s intent, after all, that its products (organics, hummus, coffee, tea, natural medicine, sea salt) and retailers (Whole Foods, Co-Ops, Farmer’s Markets) comprise a significant portion of the list of “Stuff White People Like” on that satirical web site. The industry has begun marketing outside that base significantly, and a recent report by the Organic Trade Association points out that African American and Hispanic families are buying organics at a growing pace – the result of an increased presence of organics in conventional grocery. But as that consumer base grows, the natural products industry remains behind in hiring and promotion – not to mention store construction – in African-American and Hispanic communities. And the entrepreneurial base is even less diverse.

Without paying attention, it can become a dangerous situation for the business: the hallowed “point of differentiation,” the chief branding attribute, between conventionally produced products and their natural or organic or fair trade or non-GMO alternatives is that there’s a moral underpinning to these products. Lose the moral high ground, and the branding of the entire industry is at risk. Competitors inside the conventional food system would drool at the thought that the industry that so readily points to the superiority of its organic soil could be standing on that soil with feet of clay.

Conversely, if it decides to lead on the issue, the industry can continue double down on its core values, and extend itself.

So with apologies to Howard Schultz, for this, and the next two columns, let’s talk about race. As we do, let’s keep intent in mind. Defenders of the industry are correct to point to the many places where the industry is succeeding from a diversity standpoint, and in terms of nobility of intent, as well: it’s organized around a save-the-earth mentality; in terms of diversity, it strives to present itself as egalitarian in regards to the ability of female and LGBT employees to move into leadership positions. It has pioneered certifications: Fair Trade, USDA Organic, Non-GMO, Biodynamic. It’s filled with businesses that are firmly planted in global citizenship, with successful companies sharing that success with underprivileged or underserved swaths of the population abroad, developing jobs and preserving the environment in countries like Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Thailand. But it isn’t sufficiently addressing the economic well-being of underserved communities at home. And without care, the effects can metastasize regardless of the intent.

We’ll look at how the industry got to where it is in my next column; after that, we’ll try to figure out solutions. But for now, here’s why the industry needs to become as in tune with racial sensitivity as well as it is to, say, gluten sensitivity.

Are things really that bad? It’s hard to tell.The mission-based orientation of the brands has been a two-edged sword. Most have been so focused on success with regard to agricultural or international social justice agendas that they’ve been myopic with regard to diversity issues.This is where things get tricky. Can you be too busy doing the right thing to do the right thing? Can you imply that you’re open to diverse hir- ing, but only take what the tide brings in? Isn’t one percent for the planet enough?

That depends – are you happy with one percent of the market? Look at things from the broader context: yes, society has changed to the point where a natural products industry, and the environmental, physiological, and agricultural missions it tends to represent, can have a seat at the table. But that table is also involved in a long process and conversation about standards for diversity that all thriving industries (and yes, that includes media entities like BevNET as well) must observe and develop.The relative youth of the industry kept it insular for a long time: being mission-driven has allowed it to keep its head down to prove its value. But for the industry to truly affect long-term change, it’s going to need to make the right choices when its at that bigger table.

Right now, with organics representing more than $30 billion in sales and spe- cialty foods more than $100 billion, with more than 70,000 people attending – tri- umphantly – Expo West, with America’s foodie culture on high alert, the industry has matured. In just a few short years, mainstream supermarkets have come to recognize that consumers of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds might want these products, and, with more attain- able price points and more appealing products, have found ways to get them to a population that no longer resembles the demographic makeup of, say, a liberal arts college in Maine.

But to truly disrupt the establishment over the long haul, there must be an effort to sell the businesses to the con- sumers as entities that can be valued as strongly as their brands.The faith that purchasing power can create change has catalyzed sales – but now the next step of the promise, change for all, needs to be observed, and the industry needs to lead on that front. Diversity – ultimately, in all its forms – should be an imperative for this industry simply because it is deeply rooted in, and brands itself behind, posi- tive change.There’s distinct advantage in extending those roots, and that brand platform, to more than just one product.