When CEO Paul Polman took the reins at Unilever in 2009, he immediately did away with with earnings guidance in quarterly reports, prioritizing changing the future instead of predicting it.
Unilever, which makes some of the best-known brands in the world, has long contributed meaningfully to a variety of causes globally. The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan lays out a clearly articulated mission to “improve health and wellbeing for more than 1 billion people, reduce our environmental impact by half and enhance the livelihoods of millions of people across the world.”
Earlier this year, the company introduced Growing Roots, an entirely unique-tasting line of organic snacks with a pretty unique proposition in the snack aisle too: Fifty percent of profits from Growing Roots go to urban farming initiatives.
Matthew McCarthy, VP Foods in North America for Unilever answered our questions about the new product line, what community engagement means to employees and why he’s betting the snack aisle can help unlock access to produce in urban areas.
What was the impetus for Growing Roots?
Simply put, Growing Roots started as a social mission before it was a brand. Inspired by the transformational impact we saw urban farms have, we created Growing Roots Foods to fulfill and extend that mission. Every purchase of Growing Roots foods supports urban farming with 50% of all profits going to urban farming initiatives.
The seed for Growing Roots was planted more than two years ago when Unilever joined an innovative partnership with the city of New York’s ‘Building Healthy Communities’ initiative and Green City Force which supported the creation of six urban farms in New York, unlocking access to fresh foods and nutrition and culinary education.
In these communities, vegetable consumption and in-home cooking increased, the farms have generated more than 32,000 pounds of organic produce and more than 40 young people from these communities have been placed into green economy jobs.
Why not redirect revenues from an existing product instead of starting a new line?
We’re in a unique position as a major food maker to direct our resources—our teams, supply chain, technical expertise and brand-building muscle—to grow a self-sustaining business model from the ground up. This new model sets us up to provide the most meaningful impact long term, so everyone can have access to fresh food, no matter where they live.
This launch was directly inspired by the passion and energy we felt from so many employees at Unilever, who together have contributed more than 2,000 volunteer hours to the farms we support – Growing Roots is a huge point of pride and passion for Unilever.
Why urban farms?
It’s no secret that poor access to fresh produce and lack of experience cooking with it has a direct correlation to negative health outcomes for these communities.
While the issue of fresh food access goes beyond just urban areas, we chose to begin our focus in our own backyard. We were guided by our public and nonprofit partners to choose the specific communities in New York. Based on the successful outcome of the community impact in New York, we’re extending our outreach to Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, and Chicago.
Why is a public/private approach important?
Especially in food, following purpose requires innovative cross-sector collaboration to make a meaningful impact. The public-private partnership with the city of New York’s ‘Building Healthy Communities’ initiative and Green City Force was the critical unlock to the level of impact we’ve been able to have, and we’d love to see more work like it.
Unilever has repeatedly and publicly articulated its mission and goals with regard to improving lives and much progress has been made. Yet, there is so much need. Do you ever worry an initiative like this is a drop in the bucket? If so, what propels you forward?
With this launch of Growing Roots foods, we have created a sustainable source of funds to support the expansion of urban farming, with the hopes of scaling up our community-health impact and deepening our engagement nationally. But, we know we can’t do it alone. A portion of every purchase of Growing Roots foods goes to support urban farming – so everyone who purchases the new line is helping to grow community impact with us, and every little bit matters.
Skeptics feel brands talk about giving back for the wrong reasons. What are your right reasons?
We have a simple but clear purpose, to make sustainable living commonplace. Purpose is our business model, and it’s woven into all the work we do.
Our mission is to make food that Tastes Good, Does Good, and Doesn’t Cost the Earth. This means producing nutritious food with less impact on the environment and less waste, benefitting the livelihoods of food producers and improving the nutrition and wellbeing of consumers.
Let’s talk about this product line. Why the snack aisle? Unilever has so many options and the cost of goods for organic food products is high.
This is a new category, new product innovation process and new business model for us, and we’re excited by the challenge. The Growing Roots line of organic bites and clusters meet a growing consumer demand for organic, plant-based, clean-label snacks.
We wanted to bring something to the U.S. market that was plant-based and more flavor-forward than what’s currently on the shelf. The delicious flavors and organic ingredients (like coconut and flax, chia and sesame seeds) are bold – creating uniquely sweet and savory flavor profiles and aromatics. People tell us they’ve never tasted combinations like this in a snack before.
What flavors are you launching with and what can we expect in the future?
The Growing Roots line launched this spring with four new varieties of organic snack bites and clusters, which feature on-trend, bold flavors in uniquely sweet and savory combinations. Each one is made with delicious, plant-based ingredients, and they’re USDA-certified organic, gluten-free and vegan.
The first four varieties include:
o Cocoa Chipotle that has the richness of cocoa and a kick from chipotle peppers for a deeply flavorful snack experience.
o Pineapple Coconut Rum with real pineapple, a splash of rum and a dash of cinnamon to bring you a sweet and tangy tropical taste.
o Maple Bourbon blended with a touch of real maple syrup and a dash of nutmeg for a lightly sweet and warming crunchy snack.
o Coconut Curry that balances coconut with turmeric and lemongrass to create a savory, spicy flavor.
Have you volunteered, worked directly in the communities you are impacting with this product?
Absolutely. It is most inspiring to see the communities embrace these farms—this program wouldn’t be a success without the direct involvement of young community members.
Where are they available?
Each of the Growing Roots offerings are available in ShopRite stores retailing for $3.99 per 4-oz pack. We will be expanding to more retailers, including Amazon Fresh and Amazon.com throughout 2018 so stay tuned for more!
*Contagious Magazine, issue #35, offers a fantastic deep dive case study on Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan. I would be happy to share a PDF with anyone interested (permission to do so has been granted by Contagious.)
Matthew McCarthy heads up Unilever’s Food business in North America. In his 20 years with the company Matthew has cultivated a diverse path in marketing and general management working across Foods and Personal Care. He has led a wide range of iconic consumer brands and has a passion for building teams and creating transformative growth. Matthew has received a number of industry recognitions including Cannes Gold Lion, One Show Gold Pencil, IAB MIXX and Adweek’s Brand Genius award. As Vice President Foods NA Matthew is a member of Unilever’s US country board and global Foods Leadership team. Matthew’s wife Lisa is a director at the Bronx Zoo/Wildlife Conservation Society and together they are actively involved in their personal passions of animal welfare and social justice.