Note: In honor of Social Venture Network’s 25-year anniversary, the network is inducting 25 of its most innovative and influential leaders into its hall of fame Nov. 13 at Gotham Hall in New York City. To recognize these sustainable business pioneers, SVN’s news program, ‘Sustainable Solutions,’ is interviewing the hall-of-famers to celebrate their accomplishments and learn what more needs to be done. Read the whole series here.
Social Venture Network honors Gary Hirshberg for positive environmental contributions.
Not only are the farmers profitable, they are making more money than they did before they farmed organically, he notes.
Growing up in rural New Hampshire, Hirshberg remembers when he was young the family got their eggs, chicken, butter and milk from farms that he knew. But by the time he was an adolescent that was gone, and when he was headed to college it was a faint memory.
In the 1970s, the U.S. lost more than one million family farmers, a “national tragedy,” says Hirshberg.
Yogurt company Stonyfield Farm was founded in 1983 as a way to fund a farming school teaching sustainable agricultural practices. The yogurt’s popularity made Hirshberg and co-founder Samuel Kaymen realize the company could make a bigger difference for family farmers and the environment than the school.
“For me, to have played a small part in a revolution of showing that we can produce higher quality, healthier food in a business that makes more money while enriching our supply chain is really our greatest achievement so far,” says Hirshberg, who was “CE-Yo” and president of the company for 28 years and is currently its chairman.
The company supports 1,700 family farms, keeping more than 200,000 agricultural acres free of persistent pesticides and other chemicals that commercial farms use.
Stonyfield was the first U.S. manufacturer to offset 100 percent of its carbon-dioxide emissions from its manufacturing facility. Hirshberg says he is proud of the company’s waste treatment plant, which produces biogas used to run its operations.
Stonyfield has recycled millions of pounds of plastics and avoided tens of millions of pounds through reducing at the source.
While the company has many impressive achievements, Hirshberg looks to what more can be done.
“None of that is success yet. Success will be when you finish eating the yogurt you’ll eat the cup, there won’t be any waste, there’s nothing to reduce, there’s nothing to recycle,” he says.
He says the organic movement is “incredibly hopeful” with a powerful, evidence-based case that organics is a win-win-win agriculture for farmers, biodiversity and national security through reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
Hirshberg is being inducted into the Social Venture Network’s (SVN) Hall of Fame as part of the network’s 25th anniversary celebrations and is one of five people being recognized in the environmental evangelist category.
Each honoree receives an SVN Impact Award for creating an enterprise with more than $50 million in annual revenue while demonstrating leadership that’s helped sow the seeds for the modern organic food and sustainable business movements.
The other category inductees are Organic Valley founder George Siemon, Earthbound Farm co-founders Myra and Drew Goodman and Seventh Generation co-founder Jeffrey Hollender.
Hirshberg says it is an honor to be named alongside people he respects. He says all the honorees can take some credit for helping raise awareness of environmental issues that have come to fruition.
“I always say we had a wonderful company back in 1983 doing great things we just had no supply and no demand, meaning that nobody really understood what we were doing — this is true of a lot of my colleagues who have been named,” he says.
He says the company has known “we are what we eat,” and serious changes were needed in behavior and ways of thinking. But it took a while for people to understand and it was hard to build traction and get an audience and investors, he adds.
While this awareness around food has changed, there is still a long way to go, says Hirshberg.