How one company is helping to change the way we think about food
In October, Green Century Capital Management withdrew its shareholder proposal at Tyson Foods* after news broke that the company, which is the largest meat provider in the United States, took a five percent stake in plant-based protein producer, Beyond Meat.
We recently sat down with Beyond Meat’s Founder and CEO, Ethan Brown, and Chairman of the Board, Seth Goldman, to learn more about how the Los Angeles-based company is bringing plant-based protein into the mainstream and changing the way both consumers and the food industry think about meat.
Below, is an excerpt from our conversation:
What was the evolution of your relationship with Tyson and what led to its investment in Beyond Meat?
Ethan: We originally began conversations with Hillshire Brands* in 2012. After Hillshire was bought by Tyson we continued our conversations and it ultimately led to an investment in our company.
Do you think there is any “change of heart” from Tyson or is this a straight business venture?
Ethan: I think there is something interesting going on with Tyson. The company is becoming very progressive. They’re bringing in people from new organizations; and there are a number of bright people there that are in touch with the market. They think differently than us on different issues, but they certainly understand the trends of the market. Tyson’s new venture fund is an example of the company’s understanding that it needs to venture into emerging brands and that it needs to be investing in a broader definition of protein.
Was there any hesitation to working with Tyson, which historically has not had the same kind of mission as Beyond Meat?
Seth: It’s important to point out that Tyson’s five percent stake in our company is not, by any means, a sale or transition of control of Beyond Meat. In terms of our goals as a company, scale is very important. When we consider that 2 out of 5 American dinner plates include Tyson products, if we want to democratize our products, Tyson is a great place to start.
Ethan: We certainly don’t agree with everything in terms of Tyson as an organization. But, when you deal with the individuals we’ve been speaking with, you stop thinking of Tyson as an organization and start thinking about the genuine individuals, who love our products, and how they want our company to succeed.
We are interested in how to move more of the industry in this direction and ultimately create systemic change. Do you have any thoughts on how we get there?
Ethan: I think it’s mostly focused on the consumer and changing the supermarket meat case into a protein case where consumers can buy a variety of plant-based proteins in forms that they are familiar with – whether it be beef, chicken, sausage, etc. The market is evolving and so are our products. It’s the convergence of those two things: the quality of our products is improving and the interest from the consumer is continuing to expand, which is helping drive growth in our company. It is possible to separate the understanding of meat from the animal and allow people to have chicken, beef, sausage, etc., without linking it back to the animal. The process for traditional meat products has become so divorced from the animal anyhow – our products are merely the next physical step.
Seth: Another way we think about it is: what if we could have every American family have one more plant-based meal per week? When we think about the scope of impact, the scope of change that we would like to have, that’s the scale we think is achievable. Animal rights groups might have similar aspirations, but we are coming at it from the product side because we think it won’t happen until there is a product that can satisfy consumer demand.
Ethan: That’s right. We don’t align with meatless Mondays or similar campaigns and language because it ties into consumer sacrifice. We don’t think that’s a good way to build a business. It’s important to think about our products as meat, it’s simply a different way of getting there.
Working with companies to address sustainable agriculture and its associated environmental issues comes with its own unique benefits and challenges. Having the chance to learn from Beyond Meat, which states a dedication to improving human health, positively impacting climate change, conserving natural resources and respecting animal welfare as part of its mission, to us, provided a perfect avenue to determine how we can bridge the gap and further our work to help fix many of the environmental and social issues we hold to be paramount.
The term conscious capitalism has been in the public discourse for several years. We’ve seen some companies embrace the term and incorporate doing well by doing good into the heart of the business, such as Beyond Meat. In other cases, some companies merely use it to increase corporate reputation. Tyson’s investment in Beyond Meat could be viewed as the latter and according to some media reports, Beyond Meat even received some flak from close followers of the brand. But we believe this is a good thing.
Within the socially responsible investing community, news of a company like Tyson aligning itself with a company like Beyond Meat can be taken in many different ways. But we believe this is a positive story of how environmentally conscious and socially responsible companies are growing – it’s a positive story of how a company can produce products that don’t force consumers to sacrifice their preferences to make an impact.
*No securities mentioned were held in the portfolios of the Green Century Funds as of December 31, 2016. References to specific securities, which will change due to ongoing management of the Funds, should not be construed as a recommendation by the Funds, their administrator, or their distributor.
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