BrightFarms: Scaling salad, locally

image_11Paul Lightfoot, the CEO of BrightFarms, pitched his company during an American Idol-like panel called Great Green Ideas at Fortune Brainstorm Green. He didn’t win the audience vote, but I think BrightFarms is a great idea, so I decided to write about the company for Guardian Sustainable Business.

BrightFarms builds hydroponic greenhouses in cities to grow lettuces, tomatoes and herbs for supermarkets. Retail chains are intrigued: They can satisfy their consumer’ appetite for local food, and be assured of a predictable supply of healthy, fresh vegetables. While hydroponic farming isn’t new, BrightFarms has developed an innovative business model that should enable the company to finance its expansion.

The result is that BrightFarms is growing (pun intended) at a nice clip. This month, it announced plans to build a greenhouse in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

Here’s how my story  begins:

Most of the organic baby greens sold in Washington DC supermarkets are not “green” at all. They’re grown in the Salinas Valley in California, which has been called the most hydrologically altered landmass on the planet. Then they are shipped in refrigerated trucks roughly 2,800 miles across America.

Paul Lightfoot thinks there’s a better way to get fresh lettuce, tomatoes and herbs into the hands of supermarket shoppers. Lightfoot is chief executive of a startup called BrightFarms, which builds and operates urban, hydroponic greenhouse farms. The company operates a greenhouse farm in Philadelphia, it’s building another on a massive rooftop in Brooklyn, and it is developing farms in St Louis, Kansas City, St Paul and Oklahoma City.

You can read the rest here.

Paul Lightfoot

Paul Lightfoot

The aptly-named Paul Lightfoot, by the way, is a marathon runner, which naturally predisposed me to like him and BrightFarms. He joins a distinguished group of “green” marathon runners including Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy, Paul Polman of Unilever, “Speedy” Seth Goldman of Honest Tea, Tony Hansen of Fortune Brainstorm Green, Jason Graham-Nye of gDiapers, DOE solar guru Christina Nichols, ethical sourcing expert Melissa Schweisguth, Natalie Bailey of the Africa Biodiversity Collaborative Group and Sheryl O’Loughlin of the Nest Collective. If I’ve forgotten anyone, by all means let me know by email or in the comments.

What a long strange trip it’s been: How the Social Venture Network changed business in America

Ben Cohen, of Ben & Jerry’s renown, is asking me for money, and he’s not selling ice cream. I give him a dollar bill, he stamps it in red ink — NOT TO BE USED FOR BRIBING POLITICIANS — and returns it to me. It’s part of his new crusade to get corporate money out of politics.

“Corporations are not people, and money is not free speech,” Cohen declares.

The 61-year-old ice-cream mogul sold Ben & Jerry’s to Unilever in 2000.  (He’s on the left, without his trademark beard, next to his longtime pal Jerry Greenfield.) The T-shirt says: “Stamp Money Out of Politics.” These days,  as “Head Stamper” at StampStampede, Cohen is working for an amendment to the US Constitution to get money out of politics.

It sounds improbable but no more improbable than this: That a gathering of about 70 people, including Ben and his partner Jerry Greenfield, at the rustic Gold Lake Mountain Resort not far from Boulder, Colorado, Colorado back in 1987 could spawn a movement that has changed the way millions of Americans think about and do business. The Gold Lake get-together led to the creation of the Social Venture Network (SVN), a group of business people, investors and philanthropists, many of them shaped by the political and cultural movements of the 1960s, who believe that business can change the world for the better. About 700 SVN members, friends and family gathered last week in New York for a 25th anniversary dinner and celebration–a time to assess how far their movement to remake business has come, and how far it needs to go.

The dinner was a star-studded affair, at least for those of us who pay attention to businesses that aim to build a more just and sustainable economy. On hand along with Ben and Jerry were Eileen Fisher of the eponymous clothing company, Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm, Drew and Myra Goodman of Earthbound Organic, George Siemon of dairy co-op Organic Valley, Jeffrey Hollender, formerly of Seventh Generation, Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre Hotels, Roger Brown and Linda Mason of Bright Horizons, Amy Domini of Domini Social Investments, all of whom were named to the SVN “Hall of Fame.” Spotted in the crowd of 700 or so were Gifford Pinchot III, president of of Bainbridge Graduate Institute, my friends Seth Goldman of Honest Tea and author Mark Albion (More Than Money: Questions Every MBA Needs to Answer), Danny Kennedy of Sungevity–the closest thing to a power elite of the sustainable business movement.

None of them, to be sure, run FORTUNE 500 companies. But the movement birthed by SVN powered the field of corporate social responsibility, opened up new possibilities for entrepreneurs, raised expectations that big companies now need to meet and helped shape the way companies ranging from Google (“Don’t be Evil”) to Walmart do what they do. [click to continue…]

A question about GMOs for Naked Juice, Silk, Cascadian Farm, Kashi and Honest Tea: Which side are you on, boys?

Naked Juice says it doesn’t use ingredients produced using biotechnology as a matter of principle.

Silk, the company that put soymilk on supermarket shelves, says:

We’re proud to participate in the Non-GMO Project, a no a nonprofit, multi-stakeholder collaboration committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers and providing verified non-GMO choices.

Cascadian Farm (“We were organic before organic was a trend”) assures consumers that “you can know when you see the “certified organic” USDA seal on the front of our package that GMO crops have not been used.”

You’ll hear much the same from Kashi (“seven of our foods are now officially Non-GMO Project Verified“) and Honest Tea, which says:

Honest Tea doesn’t use any Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOS) and supports the idea that more transparent labeling will help consumers make clear choices.

The thing is, each of these upstart brands, which tout their commitment to natural or organic product, and to transparency, is owned by a big food conglomerate that opposes GMO labeling.

Think of it this way: Naked Juice (PepsiCo.), Silk (Dean Foods), Cascadian Farm (General Mills) Kashi (Kellogg) and Honest Tea (Coca-Cola) are like kids who don’t agree with their parents.

These, though, are family arguments with big consequences for food shoppers. Big food and agriculture companies funding a campaign which has raised more than $23 million to defeat California’s Proposition 37, a ballot initiative that would mandate clear labeling of genetically engineered (GE) ingredients on food packages. PepsiCo, for example, has donated $1.7 million to defeat Prop. 37, while Coca-Cola has spent more than $1.1 million. Kellogg ($612,000), General Mills ($520,000) and Dean Foods ($253,000) are big donors, too. Biotech companies Monsanto and DuPont have given even more — $4 million apiece — according to data compiled by public TV station KCET. [click to continue…]

Honest Tea CEO: Small isn’t beautiful

Seth Goldman, the president and Tea-e-0 of Honest Tea, made it official today:. The Coca-Cola Co. will exercise its option to buy all of Honest Tea, the Bethesda, Md., maker of organic, healthy beverages.

Coke bought 40% of the firm for a reported $43 million in 2008, a controversial move at the time for the upstart company that positioned itself as a challenger to the conventional way of doing business in the beverage industry.

Seth broke the news in a letter to his shareholders last night, in a blog post this morning and in an interview today with me at the State of Green Business Forum 2011 in Washington, arguing that his mission to “democratize organics” will be supported by Coke..

In an unusual twist to the deal–one that amounts to a vote of confidence in Seth’s leadership–Coca-Cola will allow him to repurchase most of his own equity stake in the company. His name will remain on the bottle, along with that of his co-founder, Yale prof Barry Nalebuff, and the company will continue to operate out of its offices in downtown Bethesda, a short bike ride away from Seth’s home. [Disclosure: I’ve known Seth for years and we attend synagogue together.]

“This is absolutely still my baby,” he said. [click to continue…]