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Becoming an anti-racist natural product industry – podcast

Improving justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (J.E.D.I.) in the natural products industry will take dedication to culture, consumers and communities, but it’s necessary says Laura Dickinson and Sheryl O’Loughlin, cofounders of the J.E.D.I. Collaborative.

The natural products industry is less diverse than the general population in terms of the consumers we serve and the individuals that lead our companies. Yet, this market is full of people who want to improve the justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (J.E.D.I.) makeup of our cultures, customers and consumers.

The first step in education, especially for those who are just becoming aware of the privilege they hold in society and the ways they operate within an unjust system. This podcast with Laura Dickinson and Sheryl O’Loughlin, cofounders of the J.E.D.I. Collaborative discusses the resources available and actions brands can take to further J.E.D.I. in the natural products industry.

With Sandy Almendarez, content director, Informa Markets, Dickinson and O’Loughlin, cover:

  • How a lack of diversity in our industry will slow the category’s growth, and won’t allow us to fulfill our full potential.
  • The reason behind and the results of the J.E.D.I. Collaborative benchmarking survey that mapped the lack of diversity within the natural and organic food industry.
  • Why increasing J.E.D.I. within the natural products industry is so important now, especially as the world is living through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Links and resources:

 

Podcast Transcript:

Sandy Almendarez, content director, Informa Markets: Hi, and welcome to a Healthy Insider Podcast. I'm Sandy, and on today’s podcast I have Laura Dickinson and Sheryl O’Loughlin, cofounders of the J.E.D.I. Collaborative. J.E.D.I. stands for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, and this organization focuses on these matters specifically in the natural products industry. We could not get both of these women on the podcast at the same time, as you can imagine they are quite busy right now. So, we are going to start with Lara, who will talk about what the J.E.D.I. Collaborative is, its goals, its benchmarking survey, and then give some practical advice to brands that want to make statements of solidarity during this time. Sherly will then follow with what brand leaders can do to help educate themselves on matters of systemic racism, and then she’ll talking about how this is the time that we need to be working toward these goals, especially during the pandemic.

On the phone, I have Lara Dickinson, co-founder and executive director of OSC2. She's also the cofounder of the J.E.D.I. Collaborative and co-founder of the Climate Collaborative. OSC2 is a group of founders and CEOs working to support each other’s business growth and more sustainable food solutions. With OSC2, she has launched several industry collaboratives, as noted, The Compostable Packaging Collaborative, the Rising Star Chapter, and most recently, the Climate Collaborative. Formerly, she was the CEO of LightFull Foods, vice president of retail sales and marketing at Numi Organic Tea and vice president of marketing at the Balance Bar Co. So, she does have a lot of history in this industry, but let's start with the basics, Lara. What is the J.E.D.I. collaborative, and what is its goal?

Lara Dickinson, co-founder, J.E.D.I. Collaborative: Sure, thank you so the J.E.D.I. Collaborative is an OSC2 natural products industry collaborative, and it is really a platform for the entire industry, for all of us to raise our game and embrace justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. And I might just go into the “why” of J.E.D.I. for a moment. Why we're doing this. I think there's sort of the personal in my personal observations and then also on behalf of the industry and OSC. From a perspective of OSC and our industry, we are innovators, we're leaders. We push the envelope to drive better food and agricultural systems on many levels in this industry, and we face a really vital business challenge that has become probably more apparent to us just in the last week, but has been brewing for a while in in our minds at OSC and for me. And that is the lack of diversity in our industry means a lack of human ingenuity, lack of perspective and a lack of talent. Over time, we will not overcome that lack of potential if we don't start to embrace diversity in a new way and really manifest our muscle and our capacity to bring in a more multicultural workforce and start to address and bring forward products that are meant for a broader range of consumers as we become a majority minority nation. We know right now that every one in two babies born is a baby of color. We have a huge opportunity, but at this moment we are not there as an industry, and I'll mention that I don't think I realized when I started OSC2 eight years ago that this entire journey, which has been an incredible journey, has been a learning journey for me about diversity and how the power of that can inform so much thriving growth for communities and for products and for our industry, and our country and how a lack of that can really hold us back.

Within OSC, it's been really apparent because I co-founded OSC with Ahmed Rahim, and we got together seven other CEOs around my dining room table, and I realize that Ahmed and I were the only “others” in the room. Me as a woman in him as a person of color. And he could see potential that maybe these others couldn't from another perspective, growing up as an “other” in the U.S. And the potential for us to come together and be bigger than we are by being alone was something that sometimes some people of marginalized communities see first. And that was just the first experience. With the climate collaborative, that was also a whole lot of opportunity that came out of having “others” in the room that were not what we would call the majority or the dominate group.

At an OSC meeting in 2015, Jessica Rolph and I were the only two women and we happened to be only nursing mothers in the room, and it was kind of odd meeting where we actually had our children there. It was this planned event that we were going to do afterwards. We were listening to scientists talk about climate change with a network of CEOs who were white men and us in a room also thinking as mothers, as new mothers and having maybe a different perspective on the potential impact about this, and a different calling for what it might mean to do something bigger than just work on this in our own supply chain. Those were just two examples of “wow, when you get diverse perspective in a room, it lights things up in whole new ways.” I have so many more examples of that within the OSC network and far beyond that our industry lights up with diversity, but our capacity is not there yet.

Almendarez: Absolutely I. I love that story. I am currently a nursing mother, and I once I was once I became a nursing mother with my first child, I looked at a lot of things differently than what I had.

Dickinson: Yes.

Almendarez: The way that we plan our days with meetings and in our tradeshows and where you can go to pump. It was eye opening.

Dickinson: And also, your sensitivity to your environment in a new way, and the safety of it, and the future of it is something that mothers tend to take on and parents in general as they become parents.

Almendarez: Right. So, Let's talk about where we are as an industry. The J.E.D.I. Collaborative did a benchmarking survey. So, what did we find out about where the natural products industry sits as far as diversity and inclusion?

Dickinson: Yeah, this is an incredible baseline for us to have. And we did this survey so that we could inform ourselves and also track our progress and start to develop some strong long-term goals as an industry. We completed this survey in early 2020, and we just recently released it in partnership with New Hope. And we found that particularly right now, we notice and I think anyone would. It's so interesting. I've talked to a number of people of color and African Americans in the last few weeks. And they all indicate, “When I walk into Expo West. I do feel different. I notice it and I feel like I have this unique head nod that I give to any other person of color or African American. Because there are so few of us in this sea of people, which do feel quite white,” It was something I never really noticed when you're in the majority until it was pointed out to me, it then becomes something you can't stop seeing. We wanted to understand what we think. We're seeing this, and we know it feels like, frankly, a bit of a monoculture industry. But what do we really represent?

This benchmarking study was on our first study with well over 200 companies. We really wanted to get to a place of a pretty good significance, and we found that there are about 2% of African Americans represented in leadership and on boards in our industry, where as there is about 13% in our countries so we know we're quite underrepresented there. The Latinx community is represented at 2% at the board level and about 6% in leadership, and much much more in terms of the U.S. population. Women are doing a bit better, particularly when you look at companies of 10 or less employees. A lot of women start companies, but what we find is that access to capital, access to networks have been a real challenge to get to that next level for women oftentimes. Women are doing better when you look at companies under 10 and under 50 in terms of being on boards and also being in leadership. When you get to companies that have over 50 employees, there is about 23% representation of women on boards and that is still not great when you think about the purchasing power of women and the in the role women have in terms of buying food in the household and also the innovation and perspective we have.

And how does that really impact these companies when they're missing that perspective and those vital board positions? Those are just a few examples, and our goal with this is to create a fair measurement of our progress, so we know in five years have we progressed and in 10 years. Well, it seems a long way off. I mean, 10 years has been a blink of an eye for me, and in 10 years, our dream is that the natural products industry looks like the U.S. population in terms of our demographic makeup, and that will unleash a whole new level of innovation that we may not even be able to imagine today.

As an industry that has enjoyed tremendous growth over the last 20 years, naturally, we're starting to see that growth subside. What is the next opportunity for thriving growth in this industry? And we believe and know quite well that embracing a more multicultural community and industry will be a big part of that growth.

Almendarez: It is no coincidence that we're recording this podcast now. As you referenced a couple of times already that at the time of the recording, it's been a little over two weeks since the death of George Floyd while he was in police custody, and the subsequent protests and really the societal reckoning that we're going through within the United States as well as globally with Black Lives Matter and its support, and really an awakening that many people of privilege are having right now to understand the roles that they play in race, even if they have not previously been aware of it. They are taking a step back and do some listening. Now, a lot of brands leaders are thinking through the same things and they want to be able to show solidarity and let people know that they believe black lives matter and they are on the right side of history to quote a phrase. But a lot of brands are also stumbling right because they come with their own privilege. So from your perspective, could we get some advice here? Do you recommend that brands make statements of solidarity? Should these statements come from brand leaders or individuals, or should they come from the brand itself?

Dickinson: I think it's, as everything, somewhat case by case, if a brand, for instance like a Ben & Jerry's, has done deep work and has ethos that is based on human rights and social activism. So them making a statement is authentic, and there's something we can learn from that. For the most part particular with brands have not actively addressed social justice in this way in the past, and I think you indicated, and we've certainly seen a lot of virtue signaling and performative allyship, which can be pretty damaging. That means it's easy to tweet support, and to put poster on your website for a day. But that creates a lot of noise that may limit hearing the people who need to be heard right now. The people who have experienced trauma and have it deserve our empathy and deserve our ears. It is for us to learn from them and their experience. My overall feeling on this and at the J.E.D.I. collaborative, what we really are trying to support, lean into and suggest is to look internal right now. Spend this time looking internal. As Ijeoma Oluo, who we've recorded on our website her whole keynote presentation to the natural products industry that we did just four weeks ago is more relevant than ever at this moment, and one of the things she said is “Clean your own house, and if you want credit for cleaning your house, get in the back of the bus.” How often do you get credit for cleaning a house that is ready to get cleaned? Our real requests for brands is to really spend time internally and limit the external posturing unless you have something truly unique to offer to this to social justice at this moment.

 The great thing is we launched the J.E.D.I. Collaborative on April 29th. It has been something we've worked on foundationally for two years now, and the foundation for the natural products industry is set up for brands and for leaders to step into this Collaborative. And to take step-by-step action. If you go on to jedicollaborative.com, you'll see how it works is one of the tabs “The How of J.E.D.I.” and the whole journey that we suggest that you take. The first step is really to get the CEO and leadership engaged, and to have them come together and really think about how they want to show up in their own companies first and embraces their companies and then their communities. And then start to work on a J.E.D.I. statement. That is done through information, so we have a series of five webinars. Everything from the what, the why and the how of J.E.D.I., to grappling with unconscious bias to crafting your J.E.D.I. statement. All those webinars are on our website. They're awesome. They’re free there, super easy to use, and they're designed exactly for the natural products industry executives to make use of. Once you've gotten to that point of the starter J.E.D.I. statement understanding where you want to go and how you want to be in this place of J.E.D.I., then move to make commitments, and those commitments our industry understands how to do this. Because we've, we've based our theory of change in the understanding of how brands can work and can come together on our experience with the Climate Collaborative.

We've created a clear set of commitments and brands can make commitments under three major areas. Culture, which is “How do you really address J.E.D.I. in your own company culture?” The next area after company culture is “consumer” and within the consumer field, we ask companies to reach a broader base of consumers through thinking about more innovative product development, branding and marketing and accessibility. We have a number of commitments underneath that strategy, tools and resources, brands can make use of if they choose to make consumer commitments. And then the third area is communities and so within the communities, we asked brands to commit to helping communities that are basically the backbone of our industry and those communities can be both the communities in your supply chain, the sourcing and farming communities and then the community within which you live and work. And underneath that we have four different commitments that can be made and again, a whole suite of strategies, tools and resources to access it. You to move you along on these commitments.

Almendarez: Well, thank you so much, Lara. Certainly, it's long overdue for companies who have not clean their own house. I love that analogy. Well, thank you so much for joining me today on this podcast.

Dickinson: Yeah, thank you, really appreciate it, absolutely.

---

Almendarez: On the phone I have Sheryl O’Loughlin, who is the co-founder and co-leader of both the J.E.D.I. Project and the Woman on Boards Project through OSC2. She's an accomplished entrepreneur with over 20 years of experience leading natural product companies including REBBL, Clif Bar and Co. Plum Inc. Her goal is to support the beautiful human beings whose lives are touched by the natural products industry, to amplify the voices of those who have been marginalized and to increase their influence in decision making, not only for their own benefit, but to strengthen our industry. She has said that our industry needs to actively and intentionally be much more inclusive.

And this is a topic that is top of mind to many people within the natural products industry within the United States and globally, especially within the last two weeks. As many people of privilege have had a reckoning of where they sit in race relations and what they can do to do better. And of course, I know that's a place of privilege to just be thinking about that now. The work that the J.E.D.I. Collaborative has done for this industry is wonderful. And we look to Sheryl and folks like you to help us be better brands and really follow through the sentiments we have here. So my first question is what can brand leaders do to better educate them themselves on manners of systemic racism and the role that their companies can play to create change?

Sheryl O’Loughlin, co-founder and co-leader the J.E.D.I. Collaborative: Yeah, it's a great question and such a time timely one. Obviously, with the events that have happened that are sad and devastating at the same time they've been going on for hundreds of years. I mean our system, let alone the food system, which we as an industry participate in obviously very heavily. This system that we're in is racist, and we need to become anti-racist to change that. Whether you look at the way that our things are set up, whether you look at how people driving down the street and most recent examples every day. Black Americans are afraid to drive in a car. I, as a white woman, cannot imagine getting up every day being afraid that somebody is going to be stopping me for no reason, and I could be killed. That is a system that has got to change, our food system is a huge participant in that. So much of this is unconscious. It's we're not talking about addressing a few bad actors here, although, yes, there are some bad actors. It's more the unconscious bias that is part of our entire system that we participate in every single solitary day that we need to strip apart, understand so that we could do address it once and for all and become an anti-racist system.

In terms of resources in this moment in time, a lot of people are asking what do they do, and so we need to make sure that we are listening to what Black Americans say that they need. And there's many resources out there for that. And we have listed on jedicollaborative.com (Justice, Equity, diversity, inclusion), we have under our resources section an article that Carlotta Mast wrote from New Hope, and I believe it's on your materials as well, that has it has a link to a list of an incredible amount of resources that are what Black American save that they need, and that is so important for us to be understanding that learning and doing something about it now and learning our own educating ourselves. Black people have been doing this forever to say, “What do I need to do?” We need to be the ones that are doing it, and so there are plenty of resources like that out there. I encourage people to go to jedicollaborative.com to look at what those are. So that's the first step.

The second step is really to understand within our industry, within the place that we stand. What as leaders, can we do in order to start shifting this system? And that's what we've been working on for the past two years, as we've developed the J.E.D.I. Collaborative. That's what we've been working on to be able to provide tools to help CEOs to move into justice, equity, diversity and inclusion for their companies. But it's complex. This is a systems issue, and we can talk more deeply about this. But when we were first starting this project, people were saying, “This is so big. All the resources you're providing there’s so many. There's so many tools, it feels overwhelming.” What we said to people is this is a systems issue. It's not going to be “do one thing in HR that is going to solve this.” We have got to address this from how we address the consumer to how we address our company culture and what we do in our company culture to our communities in terms of for example how we support our growers? How we participate in policy, and all those together make up the system. We have to address the whole system. One piece at a time as we do it stringing it together, it's too much to do it all at once, but we have to do it holistically. jedicollaborative.com walks people through how to be able to do that with very specific tactics and tools, and consultants to work with to help on that journey.

Almendarez: Also as we're going through all of this, we are in the middle of a pandemic. That's not news to anyone else, so there we were being pushed in a lot of different directions. Budgets have been reduced, but this is still an important issue, these J.E.D.I. concerns. What can brands do to balance the need to expand and include more voices, while also working with all of the limitations that we find ourselves in?

O’Loughlin: Well, this is the moment in time where this is all coming together, these limitations. Where does creativity come from? It comes from limitations. It doesn't become from the blue sky, “everything is possible,” it comes from the parameters that we put on ourselves to think creatively. What this moment is telling us is, “If you look to nature, say what makes nature thrive? It’s biodiversity.” What we have done for a long, long time, forever in business, is that we ignored the fact that we humans are part of that biodiversity, and so the diversity of humans is what we need to have a strong system. Again, it's what nature tells us it, it's what creates resilience. We also know that our businesses are essential businesses. That's what COVID has taught us that getting healthy food that is accessible and affordable to people in a way that meets people where they are in their culture, not somebody else telling him what they need to be eating, but what meets them at their culture. That's what we need. Affordable, accessible, ethnically appropriate food in order to welcome many more people into our industry.

Right now, we have an industry that is a majority in terms of consumers and also in terms of who is making up the industry in terms of in our company leaders in our boards is white people. In terms of the consumer, why people of privilege? Because of our price points. We are about getting healthy food and healthy products and healthy ecosystems for people. We are filled with people in this industry that care deeply about issues that effects people. We need to use this moment of time to say to ourselves and each other, “How do we step up to the plate to make this industry stronger? How do we drive growth, and how do we make sure that we're doing our mission as a company, as an industry to get healthier products to people.” This is our moment in time to start to stop ourselves from all of the action and say. “How do we do that?” And we do that by embracing justice, equity, diversity, inclusion and I'm not saying that just because it's the right thing to do. I'm saying it because it is the financial thing that is going to help this industry thrive in the future. We are starting to see, and Carlotta shared this this data, that the industry growth is not as much as it used to be. It's still growing that the growth isn't as strong, but the opportunity is massive. We're talking to a small sliver of the population when we become expensive, when we become inclusive, we will experience growth, and we will experience profitability in a way that we need right now as an industry. Again, it is our mission as an industry to get healthier foods people. So, this is our moment to stop ourselves to say, “How do we use this moment in time and move through this in a way that is going to make us a much stronger, resilient industry in the future?”

Almendarez: Thank you so much Sheryl for joining me today and sharing this powerful message. I really appreciate it.

O’Loughlin: Thank you, thank you for having me, and thank you for asking about this. It's so such an important moment.

Almendarez: Absolutely, and there will be many, many many many more conversations like this to come.

O’Loughlin: Thank you.

Almendarez: Thanks again to both Lara and Sheryl. And for those looking for more information, please go to jedicollaborative.com.

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