Interview: innocent’s CEO Douglas Lamont

The B side: innocent’s CEO Douglas Lamont speaks to Amy Fetzer about beating the market, embracing failure, tackling plastics and not getting too big for their boots

AF: You already have a reputation as a responsible business. With budgets tight in foodservice, can continuing to invest in sustainability really help to beat the market?

DL: “There’s a danger that when you’re seen as good company, you can stagnate. Our ethos is of continuous improvement and making sure we don’t get too big for our boots.

This is one reason why we’ve become a certified B Corporation. [B Corps are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.] It is a stamp of approval which gives our customers confidence that we are living up to our promises across the business. This strengthens the bond between us and our drinkers and drives up brand love. I’ve equally been really pleased how engaged our employees have been by it.

B Corps prove you can be an incredible success whilst prioritising sustainability. Other B Corps – Danone, Ben & Jerry’s, Ella’s Kitchen – they’re all out performing the market. That tells you something. They’re attracting high performing talent and customers because people believe in their brand and brand promise. And I believe it’s the same for us. We’re the fastest growing soft drink brand in western Europe – we grew 22% in 2017.

It’s also important to drive other businesses and industry to get involved. There is a need to shift business - to be a force for good not just profit. B Corps can be the catalyst to getting others onboard by sharing knowledge and by proving that being responsible can drive better outcomes for us all. That’s the great thing about joining the B Corp community - we can help each other solve issues. We’re always happy to talk to other people. It’s not an issue of competitive advantage - learning from others who are doing it well is really important.

AF: How can a brand like innocent which is founded on being accessible and personal grow whilst maintaining its connection to its customers?

DL: A brand is a promise to your drinkers. As long as you are true to that promise, you remain authentic. In our case, our brand promise of “tastes good, does good” signifies simple, natural, great-tasting products sourced sustainably, and giving away 10% of profits. We might have evolved how we do that, but our growth has been driven by great-tasting products, done well.

For us as a business, our ethos is that the conversation with drinkers should feel like it is with one of our friends. We believe in what we do and we try and communicate that in a simple, open, transparent, non-corporate kind of way, using straight forward language instead of business speak. Even when we’re having complex conversations about sustainability – for example, about modern slavery – we use our social media feeds to talk to our drinkers and be transparent.

AF: How do you feel about coming under fire as part of Hugh’s War on Sugar?

The outcome Hugh is seeking is something we’re fully supportive of: people eating healthy balanced diets and tackling obesity. We think we play an important role by helping people get their five a day and accessing the nutrients that come with fruit and veg. For example, there is evidence that 100% fruit juice is a valuable source of nutrients and bioactives such as carotenoids and flavanones. There is also research which shows that the bio availability of nutrients is higher in juices than in fruit so the body can access these nutrients more easily. They can also be a valuable source of fibre – we’ve analysed our smoothies and the fibre is intact.

AF: But what about the sugar?

Smoothies have sugar but it’s in a natural form. We’re massive believers in balanced diets and juices and smoothies can be a part of that. Without juices and smoothies, people would be getting even less of their five a day.

We aren’t complacent though and we’re working on making it even easier to be healthier. For example, through portion sizes, education programs and new products. We’re shifting our kids packs from 180ml to 150ml to bring them in line with government recommendations, and including portion guidance on larger packs. We have education programmes, like our Big Grow where we send half a million seed packs to classrooms, and new developments like gazpacho and plant milks.

FP: Plastic is a hot topic right now. How can foodservice tackle plastics?

We need a plastics revolution. And this is only going to happen by bringing industry, government and all the stakeholders together. This is why we’ve signed up to the Plastics Pact and why we work with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The UK recycling system needs to be overhauled. There is no way we can feed and clothe the planet without plastic – but our relationship with plastic needs to evolve. We need to find a better way of managing it. We need to value it more.

We’ve been working on plastics since 2002 and had our first recycled PET bottle in 2003. We’ve had many trials - some a success, some a failure. We’re really proud of our new bottle which is made from 50% recycled plastic and 15% plant plastic, and which is 100% recyclable along with other plastics. We’re working on using 100% renewable bottles made with no virgin oil-based plastic by 2022 which is a massive challenge but we’re committed.

We’re also trying to help shift consumer behaviour by encouraging people to recycle and our back of pack messaging is getting an unprecedented response. We’ve had lots of noise on social media – a post about our recycling messaging even made it to the top of reddit which was fantastic. Communication drives understanding as long as you keep the language really simple and natural.

 AF: We’ve talked about your responsible sourcing programmes in previous Footprint articles. Can you update us on your work on strawberries and ugly pineapples?

DL: Well one is a success and one is a failure – but it’s important to talk about failure! The strawberry water conservation project in Spain is still going strong, helping to reduce water use by up to 40%. We’re proud because we helped get it started and it’s now massive and more and more people continue to join. Another 40 farmers trained in the programme this year. Water conservation has become normalised in the supply chain there.

Sadly, the ugly pineapple project economics just didn’t work. [FP: In pineapple growing, chemicals are used to ensure pineapples look cosmetically pleasing. As pineapples for juicing don’t need to look beautiful, the project encouraged farmers to reduce this chemical use]. We proved that you could have great product that was great tasting with fewer chemicals but as we were the only customer for the ugly pineapples, for the producers, the economics didn’t stack up. But it was a good journey – this is test and learn stuff. We shouldn’t be afraid of failures and shouldn’t be afraid if things don’t work. Sustainability is about being entrepreneurial and investing in things that might work – not only what we know will definitely work.

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