Stonyfield Farm leader has unconventional views

May 4, 2009
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Gary Hirshberg, the organic yogurt king from New Hampshire who likes to put "moo" jokes on his packaging, was in town last week. He gave the staid West Michigan business folk an unusual earful.

For instance, the Stonyfield Farm president and CEO told LEED-focused West Michigan that he didn't want to spend all that money on the fees required to have his new super-green office complex LEED-certified. He put that money into the building, instead, for the benefit of his employees.

He doesn't spend much on advertising; he counts on customer loyalty to spread the good word about his yogurt. He boldly mixes politics with his business — on his yogurt containers, to be precise. He sometimes stages public events that deliver his eco-friendly messages, such as his roadside tire-inflating teams in Texas.

Hirshberg was the keynote speaker at the second annual Manufacturing Sustainability Conference put on by The Right Place and MMTC-West at the GVSU Eberhard Center.

A year ago, Hirshberg published a book, "Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World." His presentation last week focused on approaches his company takes to make more money while doing the earth and human race a favor. He helped start Stonyfield Farm in 1983, an organic farming school with seven cows. Today it’s the world's largest organic yogurt business, with sales of $340 million.

Hirshberg’s concern for the environment, his sense of humor and audacity are reminiscent of the idealistic activists of the 1970s. He sketched a grim future for life on earth if the current volume of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere is not reversed. Don't try to tell him global warming isn't real; it is a "dire necessity for our nation and our species," he said, to stop wasting the earth's resources and stop the release of greenhouse gases.

Every company must be aware of its carbon footprint, and "the supply chain is where it's all at," he said. "I'm making high profits now at a lower sales growth rate," due to the company’s reduction of its carbon footprint, he said. Then he displayed his droll New England humor with one of his current favorite one-liners: "I'd like to tell people, 'Flat is the new growth.'"

He smiles when he discusses the methane gas produced by cows "at both ends," but he isn't joking. Cows release a lot of methane — one of the most serious of greenhouse gases in terms of impact on the atmosphere and global warming. So Stonyfield Farm tries to find organically raised cows fed on grass alone instead of corn, because corn causes the cows to release more methane — and the growing of corn is a huge carbon footprint in itself.

When Stonyfield Farm overloaded the local wastewaster treatment plant, it built its own, spending 17 percent more on an anaerobic biogas process than a conventional process, but the energy savings from using the captured gas it generates saved the company millions, and local farmers who send their waste to the biogas plant can sell their carbon offsets on the world market.

Stonyfield Farm uses a lot of sugar. It comes from a partner in Brazil that uses a green process for harvesting sugar cane — not the traditional method of burning off the cane field first, which adds too much carbon to the atmosphere and wastes the parts of the plant that could go back into the soil to improve it.

"Many companies shy away from making political statements," said Hirshberg. But not Stonyfield Farm: It prints them on the yogurt lids, changing the message every week. Recently, when influential members of Congress first took notice of Stonyfield Farm's environmental crusading, the saying of the week read: "In politics, the cream doesn't always rise to the top."

When Al Gore was vice president, Stonyfield Farm put his e-mail address on the yogurt lid, encouraging people to urge him to support the Kyoto Accord regarding global warming. Gore received more than 400,000 e-mails.

Much of Hirshberg's mission is simply to end unnecessary waste. When his company wanted to urge Texas motorists to make sure their tires were fully inflated — which can save a significant amount of fuel — it put teams of people along the road offering to check tire pressure and inflate those that needed it. Their eye-catching signs read: "We Support Inflation."

Hirshberg talked about other large corporations that are working hard to reduce waste and greenhouse gases, such as Frito-Lay, Fujifilm, Proctor & Gamble, Wal-Mart and Subaru. He had high praise for Meijer Inc., which carries Stonyfield Farm yogurt. Meijer is "an unusually sophisticated retailer," he said, because it realized early on that there is an important and growing segment among consumers that really wants organic foods and is willing to pay for it.

While he was building his business over the last 25 years, he said, "I was hoping for partners like Meijer. Most were not."

NeoCan’t

You actually may be able to use the elevators at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart during this year’s NeoCon, a world trade fair of office furniture. Industry insiders have said office furniture manufacturers are bracing for a 50 percent reduction in turnout — which is a shame, since those close to the industry also expect a lot of new products to roll out this year.

Film group grows

The West Michigan Film Video Alliance, a nonprofit organization in Grand Rapids dedicated to helping develop and support local filmmakers and promote West Michigan as a locale for national film and video productions, has added two new board members for 2009.

The newly elected board members are Dirk Eichhorst, writer-director and owner of EsperJoslyn Films in Fruitport, and Melissa Peraino, director of the educational outreach department of continuing education at Grand Valley State University. Peraino was also named secretary for the board.

Eichhorst works as an independent contractor, specializing in scripts and screenwriting, and directing for film and video productions. Eichhorst, 41, said he has worked in film production for 20 years. That includes employment at companies where he was a producer/director/film editor. At The Holy Land Experience, a theme park in Orlando, Fla., that recreates Jerusalem in the time of Christ, Eichhorst was responsible for production of educational DVDs, television commercials and Web media.

Lately he has been teaching a film-directing workshop at Macomb Community College in Warren; in June, he will begin teaching introduction to script and screenwriting in the continuing education department at Grand Rapids Community College.

"I've seen the numbers of student enrollments double in the last few months and I really believe it's in large part because of the incentives" offered by the state government to the film industry, Eichhorst told Business Journal reporter Pete Daly.

He noted that the film incentives law was passed one year ago, and in that time there have been four times as many film productions in Michigan as in the previous year.

"I think statewide, everybody knows (the incentives are working), and a large percent of the population is excited about it," said Eichhorst.

The new board members join current WMFVA board of directors trustees Glen Okonoski, assistant professor of Digital Media and Production at Ferris State University; Tom Norton, general manager of WKTV in Wyoming; Angela Brown, communications and public relations director for Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce; and Dianna Stampfler, owner of the marketing consulting firm Promote Michigan.

In addition to Peraino, new officers are: chair, Deb Havens, partner and co-founder of Michigan Professional Film Services; vice chair, Andrew Johnston, public policy coordinator for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce; and treasurer, Chuck Peterson, owner of Chuck Peterson Media.

The WMFVA is a 501(c)3 nonprofit founded in 2005. It provides professional development, workshops and networking events to members and the West Michigan film and video production community. It also provides programs to develop and grow the professional crew base in West Michigan to handle the increased level of film and commercial production work generated by the one-year-old film industry incentives.

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