Clif Bar, the energy-bar company founded by a cycling enthusiast, has little problem sustaining growth. Since 2003, sales have surged 53%, to $150 million. But CEO Sheryl O'Loughlin has another sustainability issue--how to live up to Clif Bar's squeaky-green image? She tells TIME's AMANDA BOWER about CO2 emissions, recycling bins and purses made from trash.
How did you adjust to Clif Bar after working at General Foods and Quaker?
When I first got here, I was a disciplinarian. I put processes in place, thought there was always a right versus wrong. I realized over about a six-month period of time that I was getting on [owner and then CEO Gary Erickson's] nerves. He was an entrepreneur, trying new things. Every rule I set up, he broke it. We sat down and had a beer and realized that what each other had, we wanted a little of. I wanted to be able to release creative energy. He knew he needed processes in place.
Clif was the first major energy bar to be certified organic. Now that everyone is going organic, are there supply problems?
It's a huge issue. We have to search the world for some ingredients. I said to Kevin Cleary, the executive vice president of sales and operations, "We have to have organic almonds. We made a promise to consumers we would have organic almonds." He said, "You don't understand, we can't get them. They're not available anymore." I was stunned. We're having to rethink the whole way we run our business to figure out how to deal with this shortness of supply.
What about the environmental cost of transporting organic ingredients all over the world? Is that sustainable?
We did an interesting study of two suppliers of brown rice syrup. One was a U.S. supplier; one was international. Instead of asking the question about food miles [traveled], we asked how much CO2 was being emitted by the travel. We found that having the boat come over here used less CO2 than having the truck come across the U.S. We're now conducting what we're calling an eco-assessment, looking at our entire supply chain, from the field where the ingredient is planted to our packaging.
What is the least sustainable practice you know about so far at Clif Bar?
The primary wrapper on our package. It is not recyclable; it is not compostable. We have been working on trying to find an answer to it for the past five years. We can't find one. [But] the person who runs our Luna brand found this company that makes purses out of wrappers. They can make backpacks, bracelets. Isn't that cool? We're trying to make the package recyclable or compostable, but we also asked, What can we do in the meantime?
You have an in-house volunteer Eco Posse. Is that as geeky as it sounds?
[Laughs] In 2000, Gary hired an ecologist, and Eco Posse was her idea--a group of people to teach people what it means to make a difference. Simple things, like putting in more recycling bins. One day she came into the office and said, "Why do we have this shrink wrap on the caddies that hold our bars?" And we had absolutely no idea. It was just the way we'd been doing things. So we took the plastic off. We saved 90,000 lbs. of plastic and $450,000 a year.
So sustainability makes business sense.