Creating Systemic Change in the Natural Products Industry

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The natural products industry prides itself on many things—our fight for healthy food, for access to supplements, for a cleaner environment, for cleaner water. We want a future free of toxic chemicals and pollutants. We want to be able to buy food, supplements, and other products that were made without harming the world or the people who live in it.

However, as in so many industries, ours is one lacking in diversity. To combat this, members of the industry have created the J.E.D.I. Collaborative, which explains on its website that it looks to promote Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion to attract “the best people, the best ideas, and the best way forward toward a more just and prosperous future for all.”

Upon arriving at the J.E.D.I. site, users are shown a letter responding to today’s nationwide protests: “We must acknowledge the current protests and unrest that were specifically sparked by police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and that are a reflection of the more than 1,200 black citizens that have been killed by U.S. police since 2015… Black lives always have and always will matter.”

The J.E.D.I. letter also notes that the food industry is a “house of cards, dangerously close to collapsing under the strain of systemic oppression. Workers on farms and in processing plants—many of them immigrants, many undocumented and powerless to negotiate better working conditions—suffer from COVID-19 at far higher rates than the rest of us.” There is plenty to do to uncover and combat systemic racism within the natural products industry—some of which will be covered below—but for a starter, the letter asks readers to sign the American Sustainable Business Council’s statement confronting racism.

J.E.D.I.’s site features a video from Ijeoma Oluo, bestselling author of So You Want to Talk About Race, in which she discusses what it means to live in a racialized society and how to work to combat that. In the natural products industry specifically, she raised several issues. Among them (and please watch the video for her full message):

Funding issues. “Entrepreneurs of color who are trying to start their own business are finding huge systemic roadblocks where white people are not. It’s around banks, lending, and connections, with investors. It’s a huge issue that stops people from even entering the industry in the first place.”

Cultural appropriation. “This is definitely something I encounter a lot, when it comes to natural products. A lot of fetishization of communities of color. A lot of talk about going back to ‘native’ roots, but it’s a white-owned company that has no native roots. A lot of exploitation and theft of products and methods that were created by communities of color, with no acknowledgment of those communities, and certainly no sharing of profits with those communities that create and sustain those practices.”

Job access. “A lot of times I hear from people, well, that our workplace is primarily white because we don’t get any applications from people of color. And people refuse to look at where they are putting their job listings. They are refusing to look at whether this work environment is one where people of color would feel safe.”

In the video, Oluo also addresses issues with advertising, pricing and access to natural products. It’s a topic Naturade partners Kareem Cook, CMO, and Claude Tellis, CEO, have been speaking out about to raise awareness. In a 2019 interview with WholeFoods Magazine, Cook explained why the pair bought Naturade in 2012: “We wanted to bring Whole Foods [Market] quality products to what we saw as a Walmart consumer. Why should only people who have access to the Whole Foods of the world get the highest-quality supplements and nutrition?”

In a follow-up interview in March 2020, Cook added that by not serving consumers in urban centers and other underserved communities, the industry is missing out on an opportunity to help people at risk for diabetes and other health concerns. “We go to Expo West and all the same places everyone else goes to, but we also go to the Essence Festival, where there’s 500,000 women of color, who fit right in the middle of the community that need the products and education the most. But out of the 30 to 40 companies similar to us that are at Expo West, we’re the only ones at the Essence Festival. And it’s critical that we do that—that we not only let people see us and know that we exist, but that we also educate people on what’s happening.”

Why aren’t companies in the natural space aren’t targeting consumers in underserved communities? “It’s because they don’t think that people who are less mindful of health will buy their products,” Cook said. “The goal for most companies is to make money; they want to sell to the Whole Foods of the world—they want to sell to the premium stores where they can sell a product for a high price and people will buy it. And that’s a great business model but it doesn’t solve the problem.”

Oluo also pointed to pricing in the video: “A lot of populations of color are priced out of the market. How are people going to be introduced to these products, how are they going to integrate it into their lives? Part of the elitism that goes behind pricing of specialty products and oftentimes in natural products is around the price structure—seeking a certain clientele who thinks it is ‘worth it.’ But what is ‘worth it,’ and how much is a lot or a little money to you is oftentimes determined by race.”

Oluo added that—whether in the work environment or not, whether in a literal room or not—“It is important to look at who isn’t in the room, and how we can bring those voices in, and make sure that we are not neglecting whole entire populations because they don’t have a representative in the room.” Watch the full video here.

Another thing Oluo spoke about: news. Where does the news come from, what race is the person writing it, what race is the person editing it? At WholeFoods Magazine, there are two writers/editors, and we’re both white. Many of the blogs and columns we post are by writers who are white. We are missing an important perspective—not just in terms of writings about diversity in the industry, but in terms of articles centering black perspectives and communities. The businesses we interview for our features are rarely black-owned, and the respondents themselves are rarely black. The J.E.D.I. Collaborative’s letter in response to the current protest stated: “We believe that the natural foods industry must take bold steps to create an inclusive, equitable, more just world.” As a member of the industry, this is one place we can step up: We can use our platform to boost the voices of black people, indigenous people, and other people of color.

To this end, we at WholeFoods are reaching out to black members of the natural products industry. If you would like to talk to us, or write a blog, about diversity or write about the area of the industry in which you have expertise, please reach out to editor@wfcinc.com. If you own a natural products business—retail, manufacturer, or supplier—please reach out to juliapeterman@wfcinc.com, so that we can report on your new products and contact you for participation in future interview-based features. We believe that this is one way we can help the entire industry—from suppliers and manufacturers looking to get visibility for their businesses and products, to retailers looking to better serve diverse communities, to individuals looking for a platform on which to share their stories and expertise.

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