Thanksgiving is this week, a time of togetherness and gratitude. Despite often relentless pressures to maximize short-term profits, many companies are embracing this spirit all year round, going against the notion that businesses are just in it for themselves.
As we see a rise in socially responsible businesses founded on principles including inclusion and sustainability, more and more companies are putting money where their values are. Corporate giving in the US amounted to $21.09 billion in 2019, which is a 13.4 percent increase from 2018.
The vegan food sector is no exception – but with the uncertainty of the pandemic, can an industry in its infancy still afford to spend as much time and money on good causes?
For many plant-based companies, the specific ways they give back relate to their inception and their missions.
“We know our food system can’t be truly sustainable until it becomes more equitable, and we’re working to increase awareness around this topic,” says Jessica Appelgren, vice president of communications at Impossible Foods, whose meat alternative uses much less water, land, and energy than animal-based foods.
The company is focused, Appelgren says, on making the global food system sustainable by replacing animals in the food chain. And since their product ties in with the company’s mission, doing business also means doing good.
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“Through donating meat made from plants, we’re able to increase access not just to food – but to healthier food. This allows us to tackle food insecurity but also work towards our goal of attracting meat-eaters to Impossible and helping them get over the ‘plant-based anxiety’ cliff, which is a win for communities and for the planet.”
Plant-based protein bar company Mezcla was created to celebrate food and art, says chief executive, Griffin Spolansky.
“We decided when it launched to give back to the community to help to foster art education and creation. When we give back, it’s never to look good. It’s just a part of who we are; it’s part of why we started Mezcla in the first place.”
Plant-based chicken company daring launched with a goal to eradicate chickens from our food system.
“daring wanted to develop a healthy plant-based chicken, helping to cut down on overall chicken consumption and the negative environmental impacts of the chicken industry,” says chief executive and co-founder Ross Mackay.
Earlier this year, daring introduced its the initiative ‘daring Is Caring’. Every quarter, the brand donates a percentage of online proceeds to target organizations doing good in the food and wellness communities, and organizations that champion wide-spread advancement of social justice reform.
For family-owned and -operated organic company Nature’s Path Foods, the road to giving back was obvious from the start.
The company was founded in 1985, “on the belief that healthy vegetarian and organic food should be available for everyone regardless of where they shop or economic circumstances,” says executive vice president, Arjan Stephens.
Stephens’ father Arran struggled socio-economically when he was a teenager on his own and living in LA, and his mother was a refugee who fled violence in her homeland. Arran’s experience helped shape the company’s philanthropy.
“As I grew up in the business, it was ingrained in me that giving back comes from the heart and that we all have a greater purpose,” Stephens says.
The company supports food banks, charities and urban gardens across North America. In the last 10 years, it has awarded 30 grants for gardens, and is hoping to expand the program next year, and announce 21 recipients to mark 2021.
“We believe everyone has the right to healthy, organic food. That is why we donate to so many food banks and other organizations helping people in need. We keep our prices as low as possible, often taking a hit on the bottom line,” Stephens says.
“We have tried to create awareness about the health benefits of organic, non-GMO ingredients so more people will purchase organic products, therefore encouraging more farmers to convert to organic practices, to eventually make the price point less of an obstacle.”
Nature’s Path also remembers that giving back starts close to home.
“We’ve also created an internal recognition program, ‘Community Champion.’ We love recognizing team members for their leadership in their community,” Stephens says.
For plant-based dips company Bitchin’ Sauce, giving back also means supporting employees first.
“Our approach is two-fold. First, we developed our own enrichment programs. We began last year with free, onsite childcare for our Bitchin’ staff,” says chief executive Starr Edwards.
The company is also rolling out a policy that gives employees the option of paid volunteer time on a weekly basis.
“The second aspect of our approach to giving is in developing partnerships with organizations whose missions align with our own. Our goal is to provide funding, in-kind donations, and employee volunteerism.”
Companies who talk about their philanthropy risk of being accused of greenwashing, i.e. exaggerating the good work they’re doing. But Edwards says Bitchin’ Sauce has faced the opposite problem.
“In the past, we didn’t call attention to our charitable endeavors,” she says. “The idea of doing good when no one is watching resounds intensely with our leadership… The point of being vocal now is to let folks know that we are willing and able to help. We want to make a meaningful contribution on a larger scale and want to partner with others who have that same goal.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic hitting the west early this year, many companies have been forced to make redundancies, rethink long-term plans, and have seen funding opportunities disappear. But within the plant-based sector, many have seen the pandemic as a call to action.
Impossible Foods launched a food bank donation program in 2018. Following the onset of COVID-19 last March, it increased its scope and set out to serve one million meals to communities in need in 2020. It also launched the Social Good program, to contribute to a more equitable and inclusive food system.
“The pandemic has been a wake-up call that we need to be prepared to support our communities as quickly as possible should something similar happen again,” Appelgren says. “We now have the team processes in place and have built our Social Good goals into the way we approach new partnerships and initiatives across our company.”
Coronavirus has deepened Nature’s Path’s commitment, says Stephens. As well as increasing donations to at least $2.5 million of organic food this year, the company gave its employees products to take into their communities to share with extended family, neighbors and organizations in need.
For Bitchin’ Sauces, the pandemic gave an opportunity to realize how much of an impact the company could make.
“When COVID hit, our flagship Givin’ program, Bitchin’ Kids, was a godsend to many parents. We never want our team to be in a place where caring for their family and providing for the household are not directly aligned,” Edwards says.
“While the current climate has challenged us to be flexible and adaptive in shaping our initiatives, our approach hasn’t changed – it’s actively growing roots. If anything, we are more motivated than ever to give.”
However, companies recognize the need to look after themselves, first, so that they can help others.
Mezcla’s Spolansky says one dilemma that new companies face is dedicating to giving back a proportion of profit.
“Initially, our plan was to give back two percent of our profits to art organizations across the country, but with $0 profit to date and the current state of the world, we have decided to give off of our top-line sales and have given about four percent of our revenue thus far,” he says.
“Mezcla needs to be a profitable company in order to survive and continue to have an impact, so we need to strike the right balance between putting enough into the company to make it successful, and dedicating as much as possible to doing good.”
Spolansky says Mezcla is still figuring out the best way to give back.
“In an effort to really figure out what works best, we have focused on giving to one art-centered organization per quarter.”
Looking after number one first also means investing in research and development, which Stephens says is “an essential part of keeping your company relevant.”
“Consumer tastes change, diet preferences change, and you need to evolve your products to meet demand. But that doesn’t mean we sacrifice our commitment to giving back. They can co-exist quite easily,” he says.
One way to ensure they do coexist is to tie sales and donations together.
“One of the primary ways we give back is tied directly to the sales of our organic products,” says Stephens. “When we launched our premium Love Crunch Granola brand, we created the Bite4Bite program. For every Love Crunch product sold, we donate the equivalent in cash and food to local food banks.”
daring’s Mackay agrees: “Research and development have always gone hand in hand, with a larger mission for social good. daring ensures it allocates resources accordingly to meet these objectives while continuing to innovate.”
With the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic, it seems plant-based companies are doubling down on their values and altruism. Their efforts to educate consumers, improve the food system and nourish people in need is a definite silver lining to this year; one that will benefit us all in the future.