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Product, Service & Design Innovation
What Underlies the Success of the World's First Billion-Dollar Sustainable Brands

What do Organic Valley, Target, REI and Toyota have in common? They are what Freya WIlliams describes as “Green Giants,” companies that have turned sustainability into billion-dollar businesses, and they are not alone.

What do Organic Valley, Target, REI and Toyota have in common? They are what Freya WIlliams describes as “Green Giants,” companies that have turned sustainability into billion-dollar businesses, and they are not alone. In her 2015 book, Green Giants: How Smart Companies Turn Sustainability into Billion-Dollar Businesses, Williams identified nine Giants - Chipotle, Nike (Flyknit), Unilever, IKEA, GE (Ecoimagination), Tesla, Whole Foods, Toyota (Prius) and Natura - and in her plenary Tuesday morning, she excitedly announced another eight: Target (Made to Matter), REI, Simple Truth, Vestas, Organic Valley, Hain Celestial, Costco (Kirkwood) and Walmart (Sustainability Leaders). These companies are proving the business case for sustainability, making all of our jobs just a little easier. Williams brought a few of them together for a panel discussion on Tuesday afternoon to share the inside scoop on purpose-led brands.

Organic Valley is the new kid on the block, having only tipped into the billion-dollar club in 2015. Sustainability, Research & Grants Manager Jonathan Reinbold shared his excitement about being the first all-organic billion-dollar food company. This is no small feat: With only 2 percent of all U.S. agricultural land certified organic, Organic Valley has to be extremely “efficient at taking that land and turning it out as revenue,” Reinbold said. As a co-op whose stated purpose is to keep farmers prosperous, the company focuses on what is beneficial to its members to accomplish this.

“We are focused on meeting consumer needs outside the cereal bowl,” Reinbold added. “People have different wants different needs and we want to meet them where they are at.”

Organic Valley does this with exceptional mainstream appeal best exemplified in 2015’s hilarious ”Save the Bros” campaign that helped skyrocket Organic Fuel to number one in sports energy drinks. When asked why the campaign worked Reinbold simply stated, “Because it is funny.”

Success due to mainstream appeal and meeting people where they are at was a recurring theme among panelists. Jennifer Silberman, VP of Corporate Social Responsibility at Target, shared that Made to Matter, which launched in 2014, focuses on making natural, organic and sustainable products more accessible to customers. The curated product line is a collection of accessible and affordable solutions that “matter to our guests.” Target asked suppliers to push the envelope and innovate through reduced waste and packaging, closed-loop systems, clean label products, dietary and allergen restrictions and reduced-sugar brands. The challenge led to the creation of over 100 new products - ones that lead with the attributes guests care about and also happen to have a sustainable upside. The approach is working, with Made to Matter experiencing 30 percent growth last year and hitting $1 billion in sales.

REI, meanwhile, won many hearts last fall by suggesting we #OptOutside instead of shopping on Black Friday. With more Americans reporting working over 60 hours a week and yearning for Fridays, REI’s message hit home.

“People don’t organize their life around buying stuff. They organize around value and purpose,” said Vikram Sahney, Divisional VP of Strategy. REI believes that a life spent outdoors is a life well lived and they are supporting our pursuit by partnering with the National Parks to offer an app that has trail maps of many National Parks and surrounding areas that shows users their live position with no cell signal needed.

“We are blessed with great public lands in the US, we are thankful that 100 years ago someone had the foresight to establish National Parks. We are asking ourselves, in 100 years, what will people be thankful that REI did?” If you have thoughts about what the co-op can do, send Sahney an email at [email protected].

Toyota has also partnered with the National Parks. The outstanding success of the Prius has brought with it responsibility. Kevin Butt, Chief Environmental Officer at Toyota, shared, “The Prius is a great vehicle but now that there are 9 million on the road, we also have 9 million batteries that we have to deal with.” The Lamar Buffalo Ranch Project took 208 used Toyota Camry batteries and linked them to solar panels to transition a remote site in Yellowstone National Park from noisy and polluting diesel and propane generators to renewable energy.

Each of these purpose-led brands has found a way to connect with mainstream consumers. They are using innovation to create products (and brands) that appeal to the 66 percent of consumers who aren’t yet “green” but are willing to go there - and in so doing, blazing the trail to a sustainable future.