Thoughts from the big organic confab in Boulder
Attending last week’s Organic Summit, held within the tasteful confines of the St. Julien Hotel and Spa in Boulder, was a very, well, organic experience.
It started with the hotel itself. The St. Julien, a human-scale building right in downtown Boulder, exudes calm. The lobby, a light, airy space overlooking a sun-dappled garden with mountain views behind, practically echoes with a low and relaxing ohhhmmm. As far as accommodations, I get drowsy just thinking about the sheets, whose thread count approaches infinity.
Walk out into the rich-but-not-too-hot sun, and you find eminently walkable, liveable downtown Boulder, not the brutalist food-and-coffee deserts I’ve encountered at recent confabs in downtown Atlanta and Chicago.
But who wanted to go out? The food at the conference, from breakfast to dinner, was terrific — and every scrap organic. In the bar, they even offered on tap one of my favorite beers: Dale’s Pale Ale, brewed in nearby Lyons.
The conference opened with a speech by an exec from personal-care giant Estee Lauder, touting the Origins Organics skincare line, and ended with earnest speeches from two organic entrepreneurs who had sold out (literally if not figuratively) to, respectively, Hershey’s and Coca-Cola. A Coke exec even took the mike to regale the crowd on his company’s commitment to “sustainability.”
So, after all the splendor and the speeches, have I learned to quit worrying and love Big Organic?
First of all, while corporate types figured heavily among the attendees, they didn’t seem to dominate. The organizers — New Hope Media and the Organic Farming Research foundation — seemed intent on creating a conversation encompassing the entire organic universe: From corporate execs and marketers to family-scale farmers like Steve Gillman of Ruckytuck Farm in New York to watchdogs like Jim Thomas of ETC Group.
Andy Fisher, founder and executive director of the Community Food Security Coalition, also attended. Few national-level groups have done as much as CFSC to make fresh, healthy food accessible in low-income urban areas; or sneak sensible programs into that monstrosity known as the farm bill.
And, during my own speech, I shared the stage with the agricultural economist John Ikerd, a distinguished, cogent, and long-time critic of industrial-scale agriculture. John delivered a fiery sermon declaring bluntly that organics had become “coopted and controlled by the industrial-food system.” I will reprint his speech on Gristmill soon.
So, this was hardly a one-way conversation about the genius and perfection of Big Organic.
Still, I write from a small-is-beautiful, appropriate-scale, grass-roots perspective. What was it like to be swimming with the big fish, the folks for whom “small” equals not “beautiful” but rather “inefficient” plus “buying opportunity”?
It was weird — good-weird. I thought my speech was fairly well-received — although I did run into some trouble over the line about “‘organic’ milk processors’ that buy from feedlot dairy operations, and then decorate their cartons with happy cows munching grass.” I’ll get into that interesting controversy in a later post.
Generally, I found the corporate folks I met extremely enthusiastic about their greening efforts. In the context of the broader food industry, organic execs and marketers must feel like the hippies, the agitators, the radicals. It must be bizarre for them when the likes of me harangues them for being too corporate.
To be sure, they’re negotiating gaping contradictions. Seth Goldman, who launched a brand of organic bottled chilled tea called HonestTea in 1999 and then sold 40 percent of it to Coke this year, delivered the closing speech.
Goldman is an engaging speaker, but at times he seemed to misjudge the audience. The film clips of him cheerfully slogging through community-scale tea gardens in China seemed apropos; the little film montage interspersing promo material about the launch of HonestTea with clips from Rocky did not.
Goldman insisted repeatedly that partnering with Coke was the only way he could make HonestTea available nationally; but he never explained why the world needed another national-scale bottled beverage. There is, of course, the argument that a product like HonestTea, if it takes off, will draw more Chinese tea producers into organic production.
But in order for the product to meet the profit demands of its shareholders — which now include Coca-Cola — that tea will have to be produced with consistency and cheapness, not excellence and fairness to the farmers, as the primary considerations.
And, of course, in sustainability terms, the best case would be if U.S. tea drinkers merely bought organic Chinese tea and brewed it themselves — eliminating the bottler altogether. And that trend is in fact happening; demand for organic loose tea is growing.
In the Q&A period, someone asked Goldman how he squares his ideals with his partnership with Coke. “As it is now, I don’t see Coke as a sustainable company,” he said. He mentioned the controversy in India, where Coca Cola plants have been accused of drawing down water tables, causing desperation for farmers.
He returned to the theme of scale — he partnered with Coke for three reasons: “distribution, distribution, and distribution.” He added: “I couldn’t see another way to take the company national.”
Earlier, Goldman had gleefully spoken about his courtship with Coke. At one point, he recounted, HonestTea execs met with Coke execs in a neutral city. While the Coke folks put themselves up in style, the tea people stayed at a Days Inn. I think he meant to illustrate the differences in corporate culture between the two firms.
Later, the Coke VP who pursued the deal, Michael Ohmstede, said a few words. “Seth didn’t finish his story about the Days Inn,” Ohmstede said. He went on to say that when he heard that the HonestTea folks were staying at the downmarket digs, the Coke folks switched their reservations and joined them. In other words: The scrappy upstart’s values had infected the behemoth’s. The audience chortled approval.
I realized then that in the corporate marketing world, gestures rule. These companies aren’t just selling green products; they’re selling green lifestyle, or at least the trappings of such. Don’t expect us to shut down water-sucking plants in India, but we’re happy to switch hotels.
Here on Gristmill, we can and should argue about the importance of efforts like HonestTea. I can’t write them off completely. I suppose that the existence of organic bottled tea in gas stations nationwide represents a kind of progress in a market that offers Coke, Pepsi, and a bunch of inane and possibly harmful “functional” drinks (mostly owned by Coke and Pepsi).
My own passion, however, lies in more grassroots efforts.