Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: LesserEvil’s dedication to sustainability shows multiples paths forward
For most players, moving the needle in any one of these areas while also balancing other business demands is a success that they can be proud of and for which consumers likely will reward them. But the better-for-you snack brand LesserEvil wasn’t satisfied with pursuing just one avenue towards improved sustainability at a time – it wanted to explore as many as possible at once and tackle the issue from all sides.
This includes not only sourcing sustainable, organic ingredients that are not normally found in the snacking aisle, but focusing on waste reduction, production efficiencies and packaging that is potentially less damaging to the environment.
For its efforts, Whole Foods Market last month recognized the company at its 2020 Supplier Awards ceremony in Austin, Texas, with its prestigious “Raising the Bar for Quality” award that spans all merchandising categories at the natural food retailer.
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast, company CEO Charles Coristine explains why sustainability is becoming an increasingly important shopper value and how LesserEvil incorporates it into all of its business decisions from sourcing to production to packaging.
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Consumers’ rising sustainability concerns
According to data released earlier this year from the Israel-based food trend analytics startup Tastewise, 23% more consumers prioritize sustainable food choices today than a year ago – a figure that is mirrored by the International Food Information Council’s most recent Food and Health survey, which found 27% of consumers in 2019 factored the environmental sustainability of a product into their purchase choices.
Being able to meet this rising demand for more environmentally-friendly products is a nice side benefit for LesserEvil, but the Coristine explained it wasn’t the main impetus for change at the company. Rather, he said, he undertook many of the company’s sustainability initiatives because they were the right thing to do.
“It’s such a big thing to tackle. For us, for me personally, it started with the gradual elimination of single use plastics, and when you start to think that way, you can start to make little tweaks here and there that are pretty cool,” Coristine said. “Those little decisions started to lead to bigger decisions, and … what are we doing to be a better firm or company for our consumers.”
Sourcing premium, organic ingredients
One of the main ways that LesserEvil has built a better company for its consumers and “raised its vibration,” as Coristine describes it, is by sourcing from responsible and reliable partners premium organic ingredients that are less harmful to the planet and in some cases may even help repair it.
“We are trying to be as responsible of a company as possible when it comes to these things, and our commitment to organic is really the biggest thing. We’ve seen a lot of different pollutants from the pesticides and herbicides that are sprayed on crops and then go into the waters,” and buying organic helps address that, he explained.
Given these basic values, LesserEvil sources its organic butterfly popcorn, which is sold popped in sweet and savory flavors, from farms in Midwest where it also sources from American Humane Certified Hens the egg white powder used in its Grain Free Egg White Curls.
The cassava flour used in the Egg White Curls and the brand’s Grain Free Paleo Puffs comes from Brazil and the coconut oil in which the puffs are tumbled comes from the Philippines.
Sourcing ingredients that meet LesserEvil’s high standards isn’t easy, but Coristine says it is possible with help from the company’s partners, including Whole Foods.
“When we looked at trying to source organic egg whites, they were over $20 a pound. And we went to Whole Foods and said, we want to do this, do you have any suppliers that you thank you can turn us onto? And Whole Foods was such a good partner that they shared their buying teams and their commodity buyers,” he said.
Trading to NEO plastics
LesserEvil pays just as careful attention to how it processes and packages its products as it does to the ingredients that go into it.
The brand recently transitioned all of its snack packaging to NEO Plastics, which incorporates an enzyme into the plastic that helps it breakdown more quickly once it enters the landfill. The biogas that is produced in this process can be collected and turned into clean, renewable energy.
While Coristine says the solution is considerably more expensive and comes with production challenges, he thinks it is the best alternative currently available to “make hay of a bad situation.”
He explained the switch has led to longer lead times for the film and the company typically needs to make larger orders to compensate for mistakes in the supply chain. But, he added, NEO shares many of LesserEvil's values and is the right fit.
The company also uses energy efficient lighting and composts its popcorn waste to further reduce the environmental impact of producing its snacks.
Coristine acknowledges that many of these practices are more expensive, and he says they wouldn’t be possible if LesserEvil weren’t vertically integrated, which allows it to find cost savings elsewhere in the production process rather than passing on the full expense to consumers.
A new look
In addition to the new packaging, LesserEvil recently adopted a new look with help from the branding company Retail Voodoo, which better highlights the company’s name, streamlines key callouts and highlights the company’s manifesto.
“The initial designs, the packaging were pretty fragmented because … I’m no marketing genius,” and just did what I liked, he said. While this was a fun, authentic approach it also led to consumer confusion between product and brand names, he added.
“Now, everything seems a lot more cohesive and our message is out there a little more front and center,” and our manifesto is on the back of the pack, he said.
While Coristine says he is happy with the new look and enjoyed working with Retail Voodoo, he also acknowledged that the process was “soul wrenching,” and he was fearful that consumers wouldn’t like the redesign or might not recognize the products as the ones they already loved.
To reduce this risk he said the brand included on its new packaging an image of the old packaging to help consumers make the connection. He also advised others doing rebrands to phase in the new look so that it sits on the shelf along side the old look so that consumers can see they are the same product.
A sweet outlook
LesserEvil isn’t stopping with a new look. It is also plotting ways to enter new categories with better-for-you cookies and candy.
One of the key elements that Coristine hopes to bring to these categories is less of a reliance on high intensity sweeteners and to train consumers to love the taste and sweetness level of real fruit.
While he wants to offer consumers something that is better for them, he doesn’t want the brand to be “too perfect,” because when people want to indulge they want something the can feel better about but still enjoy.