My Turn: Stonyfield Farm CEO on Yogurt, Ecology

I am a businessman who grew up pretty much hating business. I loved the wilderness and outdoors, and viewed industry as the source of all things evil. My father and grandfather were New Hampshire shoe manufacturers. As a teenager, I figured out that the dyes and chemicals that gushed into rivers from their factory and the many other textile and shoe plants in our state were why I could no longer swim or fish without health risks. During those years, the views from my beloved White Mountains became obscured by smog. Local farmland, where we had picked apples and got eggs, began sprouting subdivisions and businesses instead.

I went off to college in the '70s, studied ecology, and grew more alarmed about our society's blind eye to the consequences of our unconscious obsession with economic growth. I learned that open space, clean air and water, and our increasing carbon footprint had been relegated to what economists call "externalized costs" that lie outside the income statement and balance sheet, and therefore did not exist in economic terms. Collectively we labored under other myths, like the idea that there is a place called "away" where we can send our CO2, pollution and toxins.

After college I ran as far away from business as possible. As executive director of an ecological research center, I worked to demonstrate to thousands of our visitors how to grow food, treat waste and heat our homes without fossil fuels, pesticides, fertilizers or toxic chemicals. Then I had a life-changing epiphany. I visited a large exposition funded by Kraft Foods that showed how food would be grown in the future. Its model relied on the abundant use of fossil fuels and chemicals, and embraced everything I thought was wrong about big business and industrial agriculture. But most striking to me was that more people visited that exposition in one day than toured my little institute in an entire year.

That day in 1981, I realized that only the power of enlightened business could save the world—that until commerce is harnessed for the benefit of the planet, the planet doesn't stand a chance. I understood I'd need Kraft's influence to effectively communicate a more responsible vision of how we will produce our energy, our food and our waste. Two years later, my partner, Samuel Kaymen, and I started Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, with seven cows and a dream. We began our organic-yogurt business challenging ourselves with a basic question: is it possible to run a commercial enterprise that doesn't hurt the planet—and still be highly profitable?

Today I can answer: absolutely. At Stonyfield, we have factored the planet into all our decisions. We are a 100 percent organic manufacturer, which means we avoid the production and use of many tons of toxic chemicals. We were America's first manufacturer to offset 100 percent of our carbon-dioxide emissions from our manufacturing facility. We've mapped our climate footprint (by figuring out just how much greenhouse gas we emit), installed the largest solar photovoltaic array in New Hampshire and converted our yogurt waste into bio-gas, avoiding the generation of truckloads of sludge. We replaced the plastic lid on our small yogurt cups with foil. We're installing a system that recaptures heat going up our boiler stacks and uses it to heat water instead. And we have a companywide program to attack the 10 biggest sources of our carbon emissions.

These kinds of green improvements have not only reduced our company footprint on the planet, but have saved our company so many millions of dollars that I've come to think of them as the "First National Bank of Conservation." I've learned from other business innovators as well—like Interface carpet, Patagonia and Timberland. Our collective success stories are chronicled in my new book, "Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World."

Stonyfield and countless businesses are proof that we don't have to choose between ecology and the bottom line. As the late environmentalist David Brower said, "There's no business to be done on a dead planet." Stonyfield's annual sales exceed $300 million, and we are the largest organic-yogurt manufacturer in the world. About 15 years after we created Stonyfield, we surpassed Kraft's annual yogurt sales. And this year Kraft introduced organic American-cheese singles, proving that just about anything is possible. I no longer hate business. In fact, it's probably the only force powerful enough to save the world for my children and grandchildren. That makes business all of our business.

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