Andrew Thornton on What does a healthy company look like?

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I spent all of Monday at the International Food and Drink Event, a huge food exhibition in London’s Docklands. I was speaking about Heart in Business Limited on a panel on whether the food industry is healthy as well as looking for new innovative “better for you” products for Thornton’s Budgens.

Reflecting on the current state of things, there are two major issues facing us right now;  climate change and obesity. Both are huge and complex.  Many businesses are in denial about the enormity of what is ahead of us. In the food industry, we have a role to play in both of these as we create 29% of carbon emissions and what we eat is half of the obesity challenge (a lack of exercise being the other half).

Focusing today on obesity, I believe that for businesses to engage with this, they need to move away from their traditional focus on short term profits.  For me a truly healthy company is one with a heart and one that cares about all its stakeholders, not just its shareholders.  This requires a great degree of honesty. Honesty to accept that maybe, just maybe, some of your products are bad for your customers health. While much of the unhealthier parts of the food industry talk about everything being OK in moderation, the same companies then do huge ‘buy one get one free’ promotions of giant packs of those same products that they say are “best consumed in moderation“. One fellow panelist got all indignant when I talked about some products being bad for you and again used the odious moderation argument. Let’s be blunt – sugar or salt loaded products are bad for you – full stop!

Regarding the soft drinks’ industry. seven years ago, Indra Nooyi CEO of PepsiCo hired an endocrinologist to run their Research and Development department as they needed to start to produce healthier products.  She recognised that food companies could easily end up going the way of the tobacco industry. And while she has received a lot of flack from the financial community for her focus on ‘non-core issues’, she has persisted and now a decent percentage of their products are ‘good for you‘. Yet, even today, the vast majority of their sales and profits come from products that we all know are bad for us. Now I am not naive enough to suggest they should just stop making those products.  However, I do feel the pace of change is not fast enough.

Of course competition from new entrants will help speed up then pace of change. The US based start-up Hampton Creek is dedicated to finding plant based alternative better for your foods – like egg-free Mayo (they can’t call it Mayonnaise!). Their aim to cut out ‘bad for you‘ ingredients and to focus on plants which have a much lower carbon footprint than animal based ingredients. Another is Dee’s who were also at IFE 2015 and are the Irish creator of a range of vegan, GMO and Gluten free sausages that taste, look great, are made from very healthy ingredients and have a much lower carbon footprint.

In our own store, I get customer flak for still having some sweets at the checkout. My team argue that in the competitive market we are in, we can’t afford to lose sales by stopping and we don’t have the space to put them elsewhere. Yes it is a free world and people have a choice.  Yet in my heart ,I know we are encouraging people to eat these products and sooner or later we will have to deal with this.

So to be truly healthy as a company you need to be really honest – and if you know in your heart that any of your products are bad for your customers’ health, you need to take action!

Warm Wishes


Andrew Isaac Thornton

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