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Danone To The Rescue?

“Danone is committed to growing food in a way that regenerates natural ecosystems and strengthens the well-being of farmers, livestock, local communities and consumers. Supply chain transparency is essential to accelerate the regenerative agriculture movement worldwide,” said Mickael Baud, Transparency & Traceability Transformation Program Director at Danone in 2021.

Beautiful words. Are they true?

Dear Real Organic friends,

Danone, the multinational corporation based in France but active all over the world reports gross sales of $27 billion a year. $2.2 billion in profits are up 5% for the last quarter. They compete with food beverage powerhouses such as Nestle and Unilever.

In 2019 Danone North America became the world’s largest B Corp, under the visionary leadership of CEO Emmanuel Faber.

In March of 2021, Faber, the man who led Danone for 7 years to such a public commitment, was ousted due to poor stock performance.

 

Emmanuel Faber posing with a colleague. Both hold B Corp signs and smile for the camera.
Emmanuel Faber In Better Times

In 2017, Danone purchased Whitewave Foods for $10.6 billion. Whitewave owned Horizon Organic, the biggest organic dairy company in the world. The US branch became Danone Whitewave, and then Danone North America.

On a smaller stage, the organic movement in the Northeast is struggling to save the 89 organic dairy farms recently given notice that Horizon will drop them in one year. These farms represent 10% of Vermont’s organic dairy farms and 20% of Maine’s. Plus the 46 farms that represent 6% of the organic dairies in New York. For Danone, this is a tiny speed bump barely felt. For our little New England states, this is a big deal.

This is also a big deal for the international organic movement. As we struggle to protect that which we care about, we are not having a debate about facts and figures or what we mean by organic. We are in a fight with money and power. 

“There is only One Planet. There is only One Health. 

“We want to give people the ability to make informed choices on their food products. So that each time they eat and drink, they can vote for the life they want to live, as well as the world they want to live in. And with the crisis we are facing, we now know for certain how terribly we depend on one another individually, through our universally shared biology and our global social interconnection, we know how much the way we live, we eat, we drink can impact someone else on the other side of the planet.”

– Emmanuel Faber in 2020 when he was still CEO of Danone

We all know what an organic dairy farm looks like. We know that the cows are nourished by eating the grasses and clovers that make up a healthy pasture. We know that such a way of farming produces more nutritious milk than animal factories known as CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). Let’s just call them MegaDairies. Pastured cows produce the real organic milk, cheese, and yogurt that we want when we go to the store and pay a premium for organic.

But the differences go far beyond the nutritional quality of the milk. Issues of animal welfare, nutrient cycling, soil erosion, carbon sequestration, worker welfare, carbon footprint, air quality, water quality and cycling, food system resiliency in the face of disasters such as COVID, and building strong local communities are all important. And all of these issues point to the wisdom of smaller pasture-based farms. In Albert Howard’s “Law Of Return,” we celebrate the farming systems that cycle nutrients, water, clean air, carbon, and money in the local economy. Those systems are what we call “Real Organic.”

We can no longer just say “Organic.” “Industrial Organic” has a very different set of practices and outcomes.

When we see Horizon dropping ALL the organic dairies they buy from in Northern New England, the whole country should stop and ask, “Why?”

Is it because those small farms are not efficient? Apparently, that is not the problem, as ten years ago the same farms were thriving.

The answer is that the price of “certified organic” milk in America has dropped as the “certified organic” Mega-Dairies continue to expand. It is too big a subject to deal with in this letter WHY the Mega-Dairies can produce milk so cheaply, but for today, let’s just look at whether this is a good thing. The basic tenet of capitalism is that the market will force constant improvement in how we satisfy our needs.

Are things improving? For whom?

An archived black and white photo of a white farmhouse in a field. A sign reading "This 135 Acre Farm will be sold at public auction. On premises July 30 1PM. Dr. M.C. Moses. Owner. New Carlisle, Ohio.
Losing a milk contract today usually leads to bankruptcy.

 

A new idea has come into modern capitalism. It is the “B Corp.”

It is the radical idea that profit is no longer a sufficient metric for improvement. Making money is not a good enough guide. We face serious problems that must be addressed if we are to survive and thrive as a country. We are faced with climate catastrophes daily. California is on fire. New York City is flooding. And we are becoming aware of the terrible unintended consequences of unbridled low-road capitalism for poorer communities, both Black, brown, and white. The people who live in cancer corridors are made sick so that others can buy cheaper goods. The people living close to CAFOs can not breathe the air, the citizens of Iowa cannot drink the water. Some unfortunate souls live in a place where they experience all of the above.

So the B Corp came into existence. The B stands for “Benefit.” Public Benefit. Such a corporation is voluntarily committing to higher standards of transparency, accountability, and performance. They are embracing the triple bottom line of social, environmental, and financial benefits. They make a public promise to do better in all these areas.

It is a marvelous idea, but can it work in the real world, or is it just greenwashing?

David Bronner wears a face mask and holds his right hand up in a "hang loose" signal with a multicolored firetruck.
David Bronner in front of the Magic Foam Firetruck at Dr. Bronner’s.

I visited a B Corp last month. I was at Dr. Bronner’s in California. I was deeply impressed by everything about them. They source the ingredients for their soaps (and now their chocolate) from small organic farms in the Southern hemisphere. They long ago made the commitment to have all those ingredients be grown organically. And they are quite serious that these farms should be really organic. They are co-creators of the Regenerative Organic Certification to verify that their farms are walking the walk. They have long paid higher than market prices for these real organic ingredients. They insist on fair labor standards for their suppliers. They also have great labor standards for their employees, including a 5 to 1 ratio between the lowest pay rate and the highest. They donate generously to many worthy efforts. To be entirely transparent, they also donate to the Real Organic Project. David Bronner traveled across the country to attend our first board meeting.

Walking through their production facility, it is clearly a good place to work.

To put it bluntly, I believe them.

They are a genuine B Corp.

I will buy no other soap or toothpaste. I will spread the word. That is where I want my money to go when I make my choices. That is the idea of a B Corp. It lets us know who we can support if we care about these things.

A black wall with six circles intersecting and text inside that reads: "1st: Work Hard! 2nd: Do right by customers. 3rd: Treat employees like family. 4th: Be fair to suppliers. 5th: Treat the earth like home. 6th: Give and give!
A sign on the wall of the company dining room at Dr. Bronner’s.

The biggest B Corp in the world is Danone North America, owner of Horizon.

“Danone is committed to growing food in a way that regenerates natural ecosystems and strengthens the well-being of farmers, livestock, local communities and consumers. Supply chain transparency is essential to accelerate the regenerative agriculture movement worldwide,” said Mickael Baud, Transparency & Traceability Transformation Program Director at Danone.

Okay, let’s unpack this.

Well-being of Farmers. Well…

Well-being of Livestock. Well…

Well-being of Local Communities. Well….

Well-being of Consumers. Well...Which consumers? Not the ones in Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, or Maine, who are losing the farms that keep their states green and that fuel their economies. And not the consumers who are buying milk from Mega-Dairies that are proven to have an inferior nutritional makeup.

Transparency. Without a doubt, the small organic dairy farms of Northern New England are what people think they are buying milk from when they go to the store and get a carton that has a nice picture of a cow out in a pasture. And if the milk comes from one of those small farms, that picture is the reality. But if some of the milk comes from a Mega-Dairy, then the picture is a lie. So for transparency, the picture on the front should include a cow in a dry feedlot.

It is impossible to learn the names of the farms that supply Horizon. It is “proprietary.” Given the long history of doubt and suspicion about the sourcing of some of Horizon’s milk, it is hard to imagine a company that is in greater need of transparency.

The point of all this is we need Danone to “B the change.”

We need them to lead, to be an example. We need Danone to live up to the fine words that they so beautifully speak. We need corporations to help build a better world in the way that Dr. Bronner’s is. Or we need them to step aside.

Please, Danone. Do better.

– Dave and Linley

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