Making the commute into Baltimore from Arlington, VA last week, while arduous given heavy traffic each way, was worth it just to take in the wonders of Expo East, the natural products industry's annual east coast trade show (not to be confused with the massive spring show on the west coast, easily distinguishable as Expo West). A client of mine, deeply engaged with the natural products sector, begged me to visit Expo East before even thinking of traveling out to California for Expo West, given the way one must crawl before he or she learns to walk. My legs (and appetite) thanked him for it, as I spent two days walking aisle after aisle, visiting food and drink booth after food and drink booth, tasting more turkey jerky and collagen-filled gummies (I am still not sure what the deal is with collagen) than I could have imagined over a lifetime.
I peppered the booth visits with a client meeting or two, plus a couple of seminars where I learned what some of these companies were doing to fight climate change (hint: it’s in the soil!).
PHOTO ABOVE: Scenes from the convention floor.
Two friendly baristas at Kicking Horse Coffee, client Fairtrade America's partner.
Overall, though, I spent a good bit of time finding out from exhibitors (this means all the food and drink companies with whom I visited, plus health and beauty, nutrition and consumer products companies as well) about what their companies are doing to address sustainability. One would expect companies that loosely use the term ‘natural’ to be already involved in some element of sustainability, and those exhibiting at Expo East could easily share plentiful info on their approaches. In fact many companies with whom I spoke did have innovative programs underway, like Natierra (the superfood company) and its partnership with Feed a Soul Project, or PlanetFuel contributing a percentage of sales to the Ocean Conservancy to protect our oceans from plastic pollution. There were also plenty of direct trade relationships, whereby food companies would source directly from farmers, cutting out the middle men and hence providing a greater percentage of income to growers than alternatively is the case (Theo Chocolate is one great example of this). In the health and beauty division I was enamored by a company called Nimbus Eco, making paper products out of bamboo inspired by the daunting effort to combat deforestation the founder witnessed in Indonesia. Nimbus Eco is a proud partner of Trees for the Future, planting one tree for every 24 rolls of toilet paper sold, and is evaluating other partnerships as well.
Though for every really interesting, innovative and encouraging partnership I learned of during Expo East, I also found myself disappointed when asking a founder of a chocolate company (to remain anonymous, but they have certainly lost MY business) about the company’s efforts to address child labor, and being told that in the end there’s nothing he can do about child labor, and what matters in the end is selling chocolate. I suppose the mission message never reached this founder. Perhaps I should have been less surprised that the marketing folks manning the many booths at Expo East were not well aware of their companies’ efforts to improve the environment or the social footprint of their supply chain, but I’d like to think that the population of companies at Expo East, where mission is imbedded in the development of natural products, should represent sustainability well. Maybe I’m an idealist, but each company should be a model for the rest of their peers, pushing conventional companies to be doing more, investing more and leading on more issues like sustainability. If there are still so many laggards within the Expo East population, we have a lot of work to do around Gen Pop. My mission over the next few weeks will be to follow up with each of the companies I met, learn about the work they ARE doing, encourage them to think bigger, grander and more impactful, and see where this gets us. If it means I need to strap on some running shoes and fire up my grocery bags to fill with turkey jerky at Expo West to keep the message about sustainability leadership going, so be it.