Clif Bar CEO Shares His Company's 'Five Aspirations'


By Kate Reed

Food Tank, in partnership with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, is hosting the 1st Annual Chicago Food Tank Summit on Nov. 16.

This event will feature more than 40 different speakers from the food and agriculture field. Researchers, farmers, chefs, policymakers, government officials and students will come together for interactive panels, networking, and delicious food, followed by a day of hands-on activities and opportunities for attendees.

Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Kevin Cleary, CEO of Clif Bar & Company, who will be speaking at the summit.

Kevin Cleary, CEO of Clif Bar & CompanyClif Bar & Company

Q: What initiatives have you launched recently, or are planning to launch, that will further your company's sustainability efforts?

A: One of our most exciting new sustainability initiatives is the launch of our new 275,000-square foot bakery in Twin Falls, Idaho, which is slated to open in late spring. The Clif Bar Baking Company of Twin Falls will help us meet the growing demand for our organic energy and nutrition bars. It's the first bakery we've built and we're excited to bring new jobs to a region through a business that will increase the availability of nutritious, organic food and have a low environmental footprint.

The bakery will not only be an inspiring place to work—with elegant design elements and landscaping—but will also be good for the planet focusing on zero waste, water conservation and energy efficiency. We anticipate the bakery will receive one of the highest LEED building certifications.

Sustainable aspects of the bakery will include 100-percent energy generation from renewable resources, cutting-edge processes and packaging systems to maximize energy efficiency, heat capture technology, "smart lighting" systems, a "cool roof" for improved energy efficiency and lower greenhouse gas emissions and organic landscaping with habitats for bees and butterflies.

Q: What drives you and your company to push for sustainability?

A: At Clif Bar, we gauge our success not on one, but on five bottom lines. We call them our Five Aspirations, and one of them is Sustaining the Planet. These aspirations are at the very core of how we operate as a business—they guide each of our decisions and we measure ourselves annually on how we perform against each aspiration or bottom line.

The guiding principle of our Planet Aspiration is to conserve and restore our natural resources, growing a business that works in harmony with the laws of nature. That principle helped lead us to transition to organic ingredients beginning in 2003, to commit to operating a climate neutral business, to build a headquarters that meets the highest green building standards and to start the Clif Bar Family Foundation, whose efforts include sponsoring a Seed Matters initiative to improve the viability and availability of organic seed.

Q: What is the biggest food related issue facing our planet right now? How is your company working to solve that problem?

A: Today, we have a food system that is facing a combination of rapid population growth, unpredictable patterns of weather and diminishing quantity and quality of natural resources of soil and water. Instead of diversifying the agricultural tools and technologies needed to address these issues, we've over-investing our public tax dollars into a narrow portfolio of agrichemical "solutions." It is an investment that will cost us dearly in the future—both in the depletion of natural resources and public health.

Today, organic receives less than one percent of public funding for agricultural research. So, it is no wonder that less than one percent of U.S. agriculture is organic. We need to make it easier for farmers to transition to organic and we need to do a better job of setting them up for success.

For Clif Bar & Company, it starts with organic ingredients. Since 2003, we've purchased more than 637 million pounds of organic ingredients and today, 73 percent of our all the ingredients we use are organic. To help support organic farming into the future, Clif Bar has spearheaded a five-year, US$10 million investment to create the nation's first endowed chairs in organic research at five U.S. universities, funded 14 graduate fellowships in organic plant breeding and given more than US$1.5 million to support the development of organic seed.

Q: Do you have any enlightening stories to share of collaboration between your business and other businesses or organizations that have changed your business practices?

A: We partner with many organic farmers to purchase the organic ingredients they grow for the foods we make—farmers who grow organic grains, fruits and nuts ranging from oats to almonds to cranberries. Our growth sometimes strains the available supply of certain organic ingredients so we've been looking for innovative ways to work with our farmers to address that issue.

For example, we source fig paste from a family farm in California that grows organic and conventional figs. With our growth as a business, we told them we need an additional one million pounds of organic figs a year. They could only meet our needs if they transitioned several hundred acres from conventional to organic farmland—a transition process that would take three years.

In a unique contract for us—for its length and its goal to help a farmer transition land from conventional to organic farming—we guaranteed the family that we'll buy all of their organic figs for seven years after they complete the transition of their farm acreage to organic. That's a win for both of us, so we entered into a 10-year agreement. That agreement alone is going to increase the amount of organic fig acreage in the U.S. by 20 percent.

Q: What changes would you like to see from the U.S. government to support sustainability in the food system?

A: As a country, we need to make deeper investments in the well-being of our rural communities in general and the future of organic agriculture specifically. We'd love to see:

  • State and federal incentives for landowners to provide long-term leases of agricultural land. Longer leases would provide stability for all forms of agriculture, but they're especially important to organic farmers who need three years to transition to organic.
  • Increased financial support for farmers who want to transition to organic. Offering a one-time investment to support a transition to organic would help farmers bridge three-year transition period while avoiding a long-term, subsidy-based system.
  • Increased public funding for organic research and extension services, especially in plant breeding. Organic is often criticized for not providing competitive yields, but most organic farmers start at a disadvantage because they are not using seed developed for organic production systems.

Q: What was a turning point in your company and why?

A: In 2001, Clif Bar's owners, Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford, turned down a US$120 million offer to sell the company. With the decision to stay independent, Gary and Kit had the chance to catalyze a new, different way of doing business—one that focused on five bottom lines, instead of just one. Our Five Aspirations—sustaining our business, brands, people, community and the planet—serve as our guiding principles for every decision we make whether it's working to reduce our environmental footprint, giving back to the community or creating a healthy and inspiring place to work.

Q: What three things do you want your customers to know about your company?

A: Kit Crawford, Clif Bar's owner and co-Chief Visionary Officer, captured it best when she said, at Clif Bar our goal is to "…run a different kind of company … the kind of place we'd like to work, that makes the kind of food we'd like to eat, that strives for a healthier, more sustainable world, the kind of world, we'd like to pass on to our children." These are the four things that we aspire to every day.

Kate Reed is a Food Tank Intern, working towards her dual masters MPH and MBA. She is currently a registered dietitian in the Chicagoland area. She is passionate about nutrition, public health and improving the lives of others.

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