For the past 26 years, Gary Hirshberg and his organic yogurt empire known as Stonyfield Farm have been teaching consumers--and businesses--that sustainable living isn't only healthy, but profitable. The $340 million company is an industry leader and a driving force in the sustainable food movement.
Fast Company: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing sustainable food right now?
Gary Hirshberg: We don't know what real food is as a culture, as a society. We're not ready to pay for it. We have this illusion that food not only can, but should be, cheap. I call it an illusion because we do end up paying it, through our bodies and also our planet. We really have to restore to help the financial state of our farmers. There is a whole host of consequences to eating unsustainably, but we don't measure them because they're externalities. They don't appear on our income statements, but they're real costs. One in three kids born after 2000 will be a diabetic, and that's one in two if it's Hispanic or African American. Two-thirds of Americans are obese or overweight, and we're spending billions to deal with those problems. Those are the consequences of cheap food. It's not cheap at all.
FC: What does Stonyfield do to tackle that problem?
GH: For 26 years we have paid farmers fairly, and that makes us niche--organics right now is just 3.5% of U.S. food. The good news is, that's $23.5 billion of sales, but 3.5% of total food. What that means is, we're still a rounding error, we're still at the starting line. And price is the impediment there. There are a thousand reasons to eat sustainably or organically. There's only one not to, but it's a big one.
We pay our farmers anywhere from 60% to 100% more than what conventional farmers get paid. But it's very difficult for us to charge our customers 60% to 100% more, so we end up subsidizing that ourselves, either with lower profits or just spending less on advertising. The fact we pay our farmers correctly, it changes the entire business model.
FC: If you could only make one recommendation to consumers regarding sustainable food, what would it be?
GH: When you shop, you're really voting for the kind of world you want. What we should understand is, whether you're in the airport, in a supermarket, in a convenient store or a restaurant, every time you select one item, it has a ripple effect far, far, far beyond that momentary product. It is power. We should use that power for good. I'm living proof of that. We started with seven cows. And millions and millions of people have voted with their dollars for Stonyfield, and now it's a $340 million company. We are what we eat, but more importantly, we are what we buy.
FC: What did you eat for breakfast today?
GH: You'll be totally shocked. I had my wife's homemade granola and a Stonyfield Oikos plain yogurt. Shocking, huh?
Read more of Eat-onomics, part of our Inspired Ethonomics  series: