Committing to the journey, Q&A with Seth Goldman

Seth Goldman considers himself an activist who effects change through food-focused businesses. He is the co-founder and former CEO of Honest Tea, a low-calorie beverage company which sold to Coca-Cola in 2011. He is also the chair of Beyond Meat, a plant-based protein company that went public in 2019. His latest venture, Eat the Change, is a platform that combines marketplace solutions with education and activism to empower consumers to make dietary choices aligned with their concerns around climate and health.

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How do you measure impact at the organizations that you are involved with?

The best way to ensure you have impact and the best way to be able to measure and evaluate your progress is to embed the impact into the product itself.

For example, with Honest Tea, we were concerned about calories so we created a product with one third or one fifth of the calories of the prevailing market options. So every time we sold a bottle of Honest Tea, we’re automatically reducing calorie intake. By embedding the impact into the product, we can understand our impact, and the easiest way to measure your impact is by how many units you’re selling.

And, of course, that aligns the organization — you may have some people, who are concerned only with impact and others who are concerned only with growth. The good news is those folks can coexist because there’s not a trade-off.

How does compromise play into achieving your goals even when it comes to sustainability?

I’ll give you a good example we went through with Honest Tea. We knew where we wanted to go eventually: everything fair-trade certified. But rather than do that in a way that handicaps the business — meaning the product doesn’t taste good or is too expensive, or we don’t make any margins — let’s just commit to that journey.

It was eight years before we got the tea to be fair trade certified across the entire line and an additional four years before we could make the shift to fair-trade sugar. But in the arc of the brand’s history, that’s pretty fast, to go from no bottled fair-trade teas on the market to one that’s fully fair-trade tea and sugar. We didn’t have to raise the price; we could just make it accessible to consumers. So, I think you have to take the long view.

What role should government play in helping to build a more sustainable future?

I went into my career with a mindset that government would be critical to making big change happen. What I’ve seen — and I think my career has helped demonstrate — is that a lot of change can be consumer driven. Consumers are interested in aligning their values with their purchasing choices (that’s certainly the bet we’re making with Eat The Change). The best thing government can do is not get in the way. That means making it possible for these businesses to come to market and not subsidizing legacy industries that inhibit our progress toward where we need to go.

You don’t want to pull the rug out from under farmers, but you do want to help these farmers evolve to more sustainable models of production.

How do you balance protecting the goals of your business with driving systemic adoption of your business principles?

We want everybody to follow this model. Competition is good, it keeps you on your toes, and it forces you to keep innovating. The fact that we sold Honest Tea to Coca-Cola helped demonstrate that this approach to business could be embraced by a larger corporation and scaled.

With Beyond Meat, I think the IPO helped demonstrate that this wasn’t just a niche — that it was something that could be embraced by traditional financial investors and institutions. I think that’ll make it easier for everyone else to follow.

When we really move the needle is when we can inspire a much broader part of society to embrace this approach.

If we can get businesses to think about their stakeholders in a different way — to think about the environment, workers, and consumers in a different way — then the impact can be more enduring.

If you weren’t focused on food right now, what other issue do you think you’d be putting your energy towards?

The two things that will define our country for generations to come is whether or not we are able to address climate change and then, whether we are able to do anything meaningful around institutional racism. It’s a long legacy, so it’s not something that gets done in a few years with a few votes or a few changes in leadership., It’s a long-term issue.

But this is a part of our country that has failed, and we need to find a way to do something about it.

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