December 9, 2009

Guayaki: elephant journal’s “Company of the Year.”

Guayaki Yerba Mate: elephantjournal.com’s 7th Annual “Walk the Talk” Company of the Year.


Once a month, it seems, I get to write about a new wonderful pioneering green-minded company that…after a couple years of investor-fueled growth, ups and sells out to The Man.

Ex-entrepreneurs always condescendingly explain to me, as an editor, as an idealist, that that’s how the business world works: “It’s people like us with vision, elbow grease, boldness and caring who create great companies in new market niches,” they patiently explain to me, “and when big business recognizes that “doing good” or being “eco-responsible” isn’t just idealism—you can actually make money off of it—then they absorb our little company, giving us far greater distribution.

And then those ex-entrepreneurs go on to found other visionary, pioneering companies. And that’s how the business world works, including the green-minded, fair-trade business sector that, under the appellation of LOHAS, now amounts to some $209 Billion dollars annually in the U.S. of A.

But here’s two problems with the above scenario.

Number one: when Coke buys Odwalla or Pepsi buys Naked Juice, Vitamin Water and Izze, or Kraft buys Kashi and Bear Naked, or Dean buys Silk Soy, or Hershey’s buys Dagoba or Clorox buys Burt’s Bees or whoever bough Tom’s of Maine…here’s a list of other companies that you used to love that sold out to The Man—well, the Man dumbs the product down. It’s no longer quite so quality, quite so green, organic—because The Man is about bottom lines, not triple bottom lines, and bottom lines involve cheap labor, usually in foreign countries (now I hear the Republicans and Mid-Westerners out there listening up, this ain’t just a Whole Foods’ weekend liberal issue). Bottom lines involve cheap ingredients. Bottom lines involve gutting a brand, and protecting only…the brand. The logo. The image. ‘Cause the Organic Cow of Vermont might sound Vermonty, which gives you a cozy warm feeling when you stroll down the grocery aisle, but it long ago was bought up by Dean, the very Darth Vader-like company that’s gutted, and shuttered, organic dairies and small farms across the country—and that recently turned its Silk Soy (born here in Boulder, Colorado back in the day) from the world’s largest organic brand to the world’s largest Gotcha brand, selling under the close-to-meaningless appellation of “Natural” under the same code, and close to the same price, so that it took groceries and shoppers around the US months to even realize they’d been had.

The second problem I have with the above get-green-sell-out-make-green scenario: the natural products, eco, fair-trade marketplace is fundamentally different that other markets: it’s about changing the world for the better. About being responsible for our products from beginning to end, from farm to table. It’s about “the mindful life”—elephant’s mission—the notion that we, as businesspeople and conscious consumers alike can live a good life, make good money, and at the same time do so in a way that’s of benefit to others, not at the expense of others.

There’s plenty of examples of such businesses in these membership lists of two organizations: 1% for the Planet, and B Corporation: Method, Seventh Generation, Patagonia are among the many, many businesses above that inspire me.

The world is in a bad way—in large part of the predatory, insecure, greedy habits of big business. We can fix that—this is a monster we created—and we’re at a time in history when we can give back to the earth and allll the people on it, and customers will go out of their way, and pay more, for companies that do so.

elephantjournal.com’s 7th Annual “Walk the Talk” Company of the Year.

A few months back, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with my Congressman, to hang out with ex-military man and green journalista Adam Shake…and to meet with my friends at Guayaki Yerba Mate, who were receiving a commendation from the Ambassador to Paraguay for their service to the land and people of that great little country.

After the Guayaki – Paraguay luncheon and speeches, I sat around a table (with Adam Shake, and also David DiFrenza [of Treehugger, the Green Giant of today’s green journalism]), and closely questioned two of the founders: Alex Pryor, and David Karr, whom I had known a little bit for a long time. (Photo slideshow with detailed captions re: that trip here).

In short, Guayaki is healing our earth through business. Not fruity, unprofitable, airy-fairy business that’ll never make it. Rather, Guayaki represents a new paradigm: the better their business does, the more nature heals.

They call it Market Driven Restoration (click for short, touching video).

Here’s how it works: mate (pronounced mah-tay) is shade-grown. That means that, as in Paraguay, where only 7% of the Rainforest remains (called the earth’s lungs, the rainforest absorbs carbon emissions and cools our planet, cleans the air we breathe, and provides habitat for a remarkable diversity of tribes, wildlife, and healing plants)—whenever you buy mate, it’s grown in the forest. Shade-grown products monetize the forest, thust protecting it from the bulldozer and the torch.

When you drink Guayaki, you’re helping to preserve the forest. You’re also helping to create jobs down there, so that natives don’t have to give up their traditional way of life and move to the city, where things often go downhill for them, fast.

Finally, if I told you that there were only seven forms of caffeine known to man (tea, coffee…), and that one of them was mate, and that mate was loaded with healthy nutrients and antioxidants, and didn’t stress you out in the same way coffee can…and that only mate was, as a business niche, unexploited…well if I were an investor I’d buy, buy, buy.

Mate is hugely popular in South America. I like to say that mate is the soccer (football) of the natural products world—popular and well-loved, but unknown in the US.

Guayaki, already a $10 million dollar business, is poised to become a giant (sans hyperbole) in the caffeine world. They’ve got a product that works. They’ve got a product that’s healthy. And they’ve got a product that gives back to the country where it comes—both to humans and to nature.

And in this day and age of conscious consumerism, they’re poised to become everyone’s favorite company.

Other companies, who shall go unnamed here, market themselves as givers. Every time you buy our product, their story goes, you’re benefiting “X”. Some of those companies, unfortunately, don’t deliver on those promises.

Guayaki walks their talk.

Finally, when I questioned Guayaki founders about their business model—would they sell out like all the others when they got big—they said, no, we don’t need to. We’re in this to make money, sure, but we’re in this because this inspires us, mainly, it inspires us to get up in the morning, work hard, and celebrate life. We don’t need to sell out, they said, to live a good, and meaningful life.

I’m choosing to believe them, and to support them, and to put the full weight of my big mouth and elephant’s 86,000 monthly readers and our 20 partner web sites, including my column on Huffington Post, behind Guayaki’s walk-the-talk Market Driven Restoration business model.

Why? If they succeed, we all win: we’ll have a better, cleaner, happier world that will have proven that do-good business can do well. And that will inspire hundreds of entrepreneurs to try and do the same in their own way.

And, perhaps, those new entrepreneurs will also learn that they don’t have to sell out to The Man to be successful. They can remain independent, family-owned, with pride in the values of their business.

And that will be the kind of world I want my children to grow up in.

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And so, without further adieu, I name Guayaki Yerba Mate elephantjournal.com’s “Walk the Talk” Business of the Year.



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