How to Shift the Direction of the Natural Foods Industry

June 11th 2019

By James Dills

A shift has and is happening under our noses. Natural has gone mainstream, and large corporations are clamoring for a piece of the pie. Co-ops and independent retailers are in the perfect position to pull this industry forward in ways that honor people and planet or risk becoming irrelevant in a sea of green-washed businesses.

If anyone can steer the direction of the natural products industry, it is us. It has always been co-ops and grassroots efforts that have guided us toward higher standards and greater health in our bodies and in our communities.

We can be a force of good in an increasingly ambivalent, jaded, and compassion-fatigued consumer culture. Our customers implicitly trust that we are looking out for them, vetting the very best companies – ones that reflect their values and use ingredients that come from sustainable sources.

Stores that cater to those seeking “natural” and gourmet products are a dime a dozen. Co-ops and independent retailers are unique. We, more than other natural food stores, hold the trust of our shoppers. They rely on us to carefully choose the products we carry, making sure the companies we represent hold similar values for humanity and the environment.

We are riding a kind of “green wave,” and almost all grocers have gotten in. Much of the “natural” and “organic” industry has become dominated by huge multinational conglomerates. Yet many of our shoppers don’t realize that a majority of the profits from the goods we buy and sell line the pockets of companies with whom we share very opposing views. Our industry is awash with companies that make great efforts to “look” great without actually having the high standards that resonate with our shoppers.

We are in the “sweet spot.” We enjoy broad market appeal yet are able to retain our community-owned, local feel. We have the trust of the public, giving us a unique advantage…as well as greater responsibility.

We have the opportunity to keep more money in our local economies by working closely with businesses that offer something unique, something the multinationals miss. This ideal supports local community business, wholesome ingredients, and resistance to the ever-insidious green-washing which has become increasingly rampant.

Here is what we can do: we gauge businesses by a host of criteria: locally owned, locally sourced ingredients, independently owned, socially responsible, non-GMO, organic, etc. We put these items at eye level and highlight them with advertising, demos, and promotions. It is an intentional and thoughtful process that takes time.

We work to diversify our buying channels by bringing in mid and small-sized distributors. Consider whether your store should be buying the vast majority of goods from UNFI, the primary distribution channel for Whole Foods, now owned by Amazon.

As the shift takes place we will be helping to train and educate customers to vote with their dollar for companies whose ideals match their own. Maybe we take a few margin points from Nestle, Unilever, and P&G, and gradually funnel them toward great local companies. We highlight these high integrity companies with social media presence, flyer ad space, and demo support.

The best practice parallels our best market strategy. We differentiate ourselves from the glut of “cross-over” markets, offering an alternative that is accessible to the average shopper yet unique in the way we serve and educate our customers. The shift is gradual and barely noticeable to our shopper. They can still get the products they love from companies with less-than-integrous practices, but they will be lower on the shelves, while our very best products and brands will be promoted at eye level.

Let us continue to nourish and build the trust our customers have in us. Let us lead the way instead of following the trend of our increasingly dilute industry standards. We have the chance to keep this industry from selling out to interests with no conscience of how people and planet are treated. We are uniquely positioned in our respective markets and can increasingly be a model of quality and excellence for others to follow.


James Dills is a Wellness Consultant at the Ashland Food Co-op and has previously served as a Steering Committee member at Provender Alliance. In this article he shares about a topic he is very passionate about regarding the direction of our natural foods and products industry.

(James Dill is pictured here with Paul Stamets of Host Defense Organic Mushrooms – also a Provender Alliance member – at the Ashland Food Co-op, Ashland, OR, in front of their “Give Bees A Chance” endcap display.)