Level UP: The Beauty and Constant Calling of Stewardship

January 13th 2021

by Lisa Spicka – Founder & Principal, Maracuja Solutions

 

Never at a loss for something to say, I found myself Googling “steward” to gain some inspiration for this article on “stewardship in the natural and organic products industry.” All the usual definitions appeared (e.g. a person who manages or looks after something like passengers, land, a home [noun], or the act of doing so [verb]). However, to my delight I also stumbled across Google Books’ Ngram Viewer. The Ngram Viewer  shows trends related to how a word or phrase has appeared in a large corpus of books over time. Check out the results for “steward:”

 

Of course, it could be completely circumstantial, but I couldn’t help and reflect that the frequency of reference to caring for something outside oneself (“stewardship”) decreased as capitalism’s embrace and “conventional” business models took hold.

So, let’s fast-forward past the Reagan years (signaled by all-time lows), and peek into that upswing we see in the word “steward” that begins at the end of a millennium. It’s the lower-case “steward,” which thrills me because stewardship as an action (verb) goes beyond thinking of oneself as a Steward and integrates it into everyday actions. Stewardship’s beauty is that it never ends. It forever sparks a desire for continuous improvement.

The arc of stewardship in the organic and natural product industry has been fascinating to observe. After decades of being considered a fringe movement, in the 1990s, consumers began to realize what we had been saying all along: products created with integrity and intention from field to fork are critical to the health of our planet and communities. With this consumer recognition came more inspiration and more responsibility: the industry doubled down. So, in the 90’s and the aughts, we saw companies begin to expand outwards from a strong foundation in strong products and people practices, and expand outward to supply chain practices. Many companies either created or multiplied social and environmental impact programs.

The company Once Again (Nut Butter) is a great example of this evolution in stewardship and a fantastic part of the Provender membership. I’ve been lucky to work with them in various ways. Once Again began by offering a revolutionary form of peanut butter that contained simply peanuts and salt. Founder Jeremy Thaler once told me that the simplicity of his formula initially caused labeling complications because the legal standard included so many other additives! Beyond an amazing product, Once Again boasted holistic employee practices which gradually evolved into Once Again being an employee-owned (ESOP) model.

Their sourcing practices began with direct purchasing from smallholder farmers and cooperatives in the Southern Hemisphere. Over time, they empowered their global partners even more by providing financial capital to enable spring plantings, and weather financial setbacks like lost harvests (hurricanes, anyone?). A few years ago, we worked together to launch their Honest in Trade (HIT) program. HIT embodies Once Again’s approach to sustainability and in particular monitors the social and environmental practices of key suppliers across multiple countries. When opportunities to improve stewardship practices are identified, they work in partnership with those partners to address them.

In this new decade, I am so inspired by all the companies I have worked with or observe formalizing sustainability strategies and programs. It’s the new “normal” for a successful company—a bar set (perhaps unintentionally) by many of the fearless and non-conforming companies we know and love. These companies are operationalizing social and environmental sustainability. “Operationalize” may lack a sense of romance, and sometimes (not always) takes time to show a “Return on Investment.” However, its inherent nature scales positive environmental and social results. It’s not sexy, and it’s definitely not always easy. But it creates impact and legacy. And, from time to time, those day-to-day efforts turn out a watershed moment that shines like a beacon and challenges the rest of us to catch up.

I applaud the Provender members who have evolved their stewardship over time, while challenging you to Level Up. It’s an honor to do the work with you. Let’s keep making waves.

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As a natural products industry strategist and educator, Maracuja Solutions’ CEO, Lisa Spicka, helps clients build sustainability strategies, develop cross-sector programs, deepen supply chain integrity initiatives, and assess the viability of new product strategies. These solutions enable the scaling of resilient products and services, whose integrity reduces risk, creates loyalty, improves brand reputation and product quality, and contributes to regenerative community culture.

Lisa has worked extensively in the United States and Latin America, with deep experience in the coffee, medicinal herbs, cheese, and non-profit sectors. Key contributions include work with the Sustainable Food Trade Association, Cypress Grove Chevre, Trout Lake Farm, the International Organic Inspectors Association, the Climate Collaborative, and the Organic Crop Improvement Association.

Her roles have included domestic and global leadership in operations and project management, education, supplier management, and sustainability. You can contact Lisa here at Maracuja Solutions.