Editor's Plate: Save the Planet, Save Some Money

March 26, 2009

How to Make Money and Save the World is the subhead of a book by Gary Hirshberg, who helped build Stonyfield Farm (www.stonyfield.com) into the world’s leading organic yogurt company by – not in spite of – a fanatical sense of environmental responsibility.

I knew Gary in the 1990s when I was editor of a dairy magazine and he was launching Stonyfield, based in Londonderry, N.H., on a quest to save the planet. At the time, Stonyfield was just a small, regional yogurt company, already committed to the still-young organic market. We wrote a fair amount about Gary and his company, but 15 or so years ago his save-the-planet quest seemed irrelevant or at least quixotic. Frankly, I wasn’t sure he or his company would last.

Well, I hadn’t seen him in probably 10 years until our paths briefly crossed at the Natural Products Expo East last fall. Just last month, I ran into him again at the Food Processing Suppliers Assn. annual meeting. He was delivering a keynote address titled the same as his book.

There are two amazing things you need to know at the outset. One is the scary list of facts that he cites (some of which I realize are unprovable – but not easily dismissed either). The other is that Stonyfield is an unqualified success. It’s enjoyed 18 straight years of double-digit growth (until 2008), is a $320 million company now that is 85 percent owned by France’s Groupe Danone. And tree-hugger Gary is something of a Danone executive, overseeing organic sister brands in Ireland, France and Canada.

“Humanity has made no preparations for 9.2 billion people,” he said in his introduction, citing a population projection for 2050. He splashes on a screen photos that show a shrinking Arctic ice cap; images that indicate hypoxia, or a “dead zone” off New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico (and one developing in Chesapeake Bay), the result of fertilizer nitrogen and other crop chemicals being washed out of the entire Midwest and down the Mississippi River; and an infographic that shows China overtaking the U.S. as the leading producer of greenhouse gases – though we have done virtually nothing to lessen our emissions.

Water use, he says, has increased sixfold since 1900. I gaze outside at the lush fairways of the Phoenix resort’s golf course, noting the desert just beyond the 18th hole. He holds up a paper cup of Starbucks and asks: “How much water did it take to make this cup of coffee?” Hint: A lot more than 12 ounces.

“If we stop all manufacturing on the planet today, the [global] temperature will continue to rise for 50 years before it stops,” he says. (That prediction is either way out there or one of the scariest things I’ve ever heard.)

So, is that what you want, Gary? All manufacturing in the world to cease right now? What’s going to put your kids through college?

But he has an answer to the question I didn’t ask out loud. Here’s what Stonyfield Farm has done:
• In 1997, Stonyfield became the first U.S. manufacturer to offset 100 percent of its facility energy use emissions with investments in projects such as wind energy, farm methane recovery and reforestation. Since that year, Stonyfield has offset more than 40,000 metric tonnes of global warming gases -- equal to taking 7,300 cars off the road for one year.
• In 2005, the company installed a 50 kW solar photovoltaic array on its yogurt making facility in Londonderry, N.H., the largest array in New Hampshire and at the time, the fifth largest in New England. In the cold, cloudy state of New Hampshire, it’s more symbolic than practical, but it shows the company’s making the most of technology and generating at least some of its own clean, renewable power.
• The company built an anaerobic digester waste treatment system that cost 15 percent more than a conventional aerobic one. But it also creates 90 percent less waste (sludge) than conventional dairy treatment systems, uses 40 percent less energy and also generates energy from the bio-gases released and uses it to fuel the system. Gary claims no sludge has been hauled away since it was built, and that process should only occur once very three years.

And that brings me and him to his central point: That doing environmentally responsible things can pay off. Not in good feelings and awards, but in hard dollars. The reduction of carbon dioxide emissions really starts with less energy used per ton of yogurt produced. So Stonyfield’s 1995-2005 CO2 reductions netted it $1.6 million in reduced energy costs.

Packaging design changes meant to reduce material consumption also yielded more than $1 million per year in savings.

Stonyfield is far from perfect, he’s quick to interject. But it’s doing far more than most companies are attempting. And it’s a great start.

On top of all that, April 9 is Stonyfield’s 25th anniversary. Happy birthday, tree huggers.

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