Message in a bottle

Innocent MD Nick Canney talks sugar, thirsty strawberries, imperfect pineapples and staying true to its roots. By Amy Fetzer.

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Innocent is an interesting brand. It wants to be your friend, and it chats to you from its conversational packs which promise you a product that “tastes good, does good”. But the business that started with three guys selling smoothies at a music festival is now a global business owned by Coca-Cola, so can it still hold true to its cosy, down-home image?


Now, I’ve got to come clean, I love Innocent drinks. I read their packs, and I find it hard not to be seduced by their patter. And I’m not the only one – apparently about 20 people every week take Innocent up on their offer to turn up at Fruit Towers and say “hi”. Old ladies (and trendy hipsters) knit hats for their bottles to wear during their annual winter Big Knit fundraising campaign for Age UK. And kids send in videos of themselves singing the songs they’ve written about the veg they’ve grown as part of Innocent’s school food campaign.


But the cynic in me has always wondered whether a business that’s grown as big as Innocent has, and that has got into bed with Coke, has had to shed its warm, friendly ways. So I headed to Fruit Towers to meet Nick Canney, the MD, to find out how the company has kept true to its founding principles whilst spreading its fruity tentacles across the world.


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Simple idea, simple values


“It’s 16 years since the business started on the premise of doing people some good,” explains Nick. “The idea was to put fruit, and nothing but fruit, into a bottle, and to sell that to people. It sounds easy today but at the time it was a challenge, especially doing it in a way that was sustainable, and doing business in a way that gave a bit back. But the business has worked hard to ensure the fundamental principles hold true, and that’s reflected in the Innocent promise of ‘tastes good, does good.’”


The company does seem to try to tackle sustainability from all angles, from their ingredients, production, packaging, company culture and legacy. Activities range from working with suppliers to reduce the impact of their fruit production to rethinking their packaging to save plastic or to include FSC-certified materials, and giving 10% of profits to charity.


Picking the right people


“We’ve still got lovely, tasty products, but these days, we’re doing it in a different, and more professional way. Our mission is to be Europe’s favourite little drinks company and we know that getting there will be about how we act – about doing the small things beautifully. As we’re achieving more and more scale, keeping those traditional values is more and more challenging. But I think we’re still managing. Deciding who joins the business takes a long time because it’s only through the people that work here that we can make sure the values of the business are maintained.”


Coca-cola light


Sounds good, but Innocent isn’t an independent anymore, after Coca-Cola took full control in 2013. Does Daddy Coca-Cola agree? Apparently, they have to.


“Coke own 96% of Innocent, but we’re connected not integrated. We’re still managed and run 100% independently and by a board with over 35 years collective experience at Innocent. And Coke are hugely supportive of us running independently. They know what we do – they do a huge amount themselves – it’s shared but it doesn’t overlap. Fruit sourcing, for example, overlaps, and when it comes to the supply chain, sometimes there are some synergies there. Where we find an opportunity we share it but we are left very much to run our own business.”


The offices certainly embody the brand with a casual, friendly feel including a photo history up the staircase, and sustainability-related mottos, murals and projects on the walls, but I want to know more about how “tastes good, does good” translates into practice.


Thirsty strawberries


“Sustainability is fundamental to business nowadays,” says Nick. “At Innocent we want to leave things better than we find them, which translates into going beyond compliance to partner with our suppliers on sustainability projects and investing in certified fruit like Rainforest Alliance Certified bananas when appropriate. We know that water availability is becoming an issue in the region of Spain where we source our strawberries, so we’ve been working with strawberry farmers for the last five years to grow strawberries of the same quality and quantity, using between 10-40% less water.”


I follow this point up with Clemmie Nettlefold, Innocent PR, later to find out how this saving translated into practice. “We found that high water savings are possible using both existing irrigation equipment, managed according to best practice guidelines from the University of Cordoba, and with new precision irrigation equipment,” she explains. “All of the farmers that our University partner works with are keen to adopt their water management advice because they want to continue to farm strawberries for decades to come, in harmony with nature.


“The University of Cordoba now advises farmers responsible for a 1500ha area of strawberry cultivation, they have a blog that’s followed by 6,000 people all over the world and an app to help farmers optimise their water use. However, 1500ha is only around 16% of the land cultivated with strawberries in this region of Spain, so in order to address the scale of the water challenge, we recognised the need to partner with other buyers and organisations across Europe. With this in mind, last year we convened a group of European brands, retailers and NGOs to encourage wide-scale adoption of our recommendations across the region.”


Ugly pineapples


Nick also tells me about another project Innocent is doing with pineapples. Apparently, pineapples are traditionally grown using high levels of agrichemicals to make them look beautiful because the fresh market want perfect shape, colour and crown. However, looks aren’t important when you only want fruit for its juice, but as less than 10% of a pineapple crop is sold for juice, it’s hard to influence farming methods. Innocent is determined to try to grow more sustainable pineapples so the company is helping to trial a project to understand whether achieving sustainability benefits by growing pineapples for “juice-only” can be economically viable.


“In theory,” explains Clemmie, “we think it’s possible to grow pineapples for juice using 10-20% less agrochemicals, but the price of fresh pineapples is currently so high that the cost saving of reducing agrochemicals might not be enough to encourage farmers to switch to juice-only production. We’ve helped to start a trial plantation for juice-only so that we can stop theorising and see exactly what the cost savings and quality difference is like, but pineapples take 14 months to grow so you’ll have to bear with us for the results…”


The power of partnerships


Targeting sustainability efforts at the specific impacts that are relevant to your business is crucial, but I wanted to know how Innocent decides where to direct its efforts.


“We get to these solutions by having a team in the field, working really closely with our suppliers,” says Nick. “We aim to visit our suppliers about seven times in two years, to really work with them to see how sustainable their practices are and to work together to find solutions. And then once that’s been done, patience and time become important, because you can’t keep chopping and changing strawberry or pineapple projects or suppliers, you need to make long term partnerships – partnership is really key.”


Now, I’ve interviewed scores of people about successful sustainability in business, and I’d say there’s a consensus that no matter how good an idea is, the financials still have to add up. But when I put this to Nick, he is adamant that while they aim to choose the specific projects that provide the best sustainability opportunity as well as economic opportunity, if an idea addresses an impact, and works towards the “tastes good, does good” motto, then that can be enough to make it fly.


Sugar, sugar


Now I wouldn’t have done my job if I didn’t ask about sugar. There was a media furore last year after newspapers reported on the “horrifying levels of sugar” in fruit-based drinks, reporting that there were six teaspoons of (natural) sugar in an Innocent mango and passion fruit smoothie.


This is only the same level of natural sugars that would be in the two pieces of fruit that the smoothie is equivalent to. But it’s still an issue that concerns me. Because the fact it’s been whizzed up in a smoothie makes it much easier to consume, and I know my kids would glug down two or three smoothies in one sitting, and drink juice all day, every day, if I’d let them. Which I don’t, and of course, many others take a commonsense approach too.


But I know there are exceptions – those who let their kids glug away because they feel it’s a healthy choice; they’d prefer their kids drank something rather than nothing; or it’s one less battle to fight when a child wants juice instead of water. And there are adults too who drink more juice than the recommended RDA.


The concern is that six teaspoons is the World Health Organisations recommended daily limit, and experts believe that high levels of sugar are contributing to health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay and cancer.


Yet it’s a tricky subject, because in the UK, two thirds of the population aren’t getting their recommended five fruit and veg a day, and I agree with Innocent that smoothies and juices can be a good way to get one or two vital portions of good stuff into people. And it’s true that journalists like me who confuse everyone by talking about sugar could well be stopping people from using smoothies and juices to get some of their five a day.


So how does the company address the issue?


Tackle it head on


Well they start by having a clear section on their website that sets out a commonsense approach. It explains that smoothies (250ml) will only ever count for two portions of your five a day, and juice (150ml) one, no matter how much you drink.


When it comes to weight gain, they list several studies which “have shown that people who drink fruit juice in line with dietary recommendations have better diets overall, have better health indicators (like insulin sensitivity) and are at a lower risk of obesity than people who don’t drink fruit juice.”


And, when it comes to the effect on teeth, they quote a couple of studies that found no difference on tooth enamel whether certain fruits were eaten whole or juiced.


Nick, when I raise the issue with him, is clearly exasperated by the whole debate.


“It’s simple for me – an Innocent smoothie is nothing but fruit. The bottle contains two portions of fruit so it’s two of your five-a-day. And if you look at some of the issues in the UK, yes you’ve got obesity and concerns about sugar, but a bigger issue is that people are not eating enough fruit and veg, with two thirds of the UK population not getting their five a day. We know not getting enough fruit and veg contributes to issues like high blood pressure, heart disease and other conditions.”


And he also has faith in the public’s ability to moderate their intake, quoting figures from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey, which found that the average fruit juice consumption among consumers of juice falls just below 150ml/day.


So commonsense may indeed prevail, and consumers do need to take responsibility for sensible consumption. However, the company is also taking some steps to reduce the sugar levels in some of their drinks.


“One of the other things we’re doing is putting vegetables – like beetroot – into our drinks to take a little of the sweetness out and reduce natural sugar levels. Our ‘bubbles’ range also has about half the calories.


“We’ve got to get back to a positive message about fruit, to stop the people who’ve been confused [by the negative press] from getting confused again – we don’t want people to over consume but we need to give people a good, easy way to get two of their five a day.”


The sugar issue is Innocent’s nemesis because its products are always going to contain natural sugars, and it’s a hard one to resolve because the more the company engages in the debate, and the more media that results, and the more potential there is for Joe Public to be confused. The problem is that it’s low key, transparent website approach might not reach those who need educating the most.


However, after a final tour of the offices, during which Nick shows me a hand-knitted bottle-top hat with an RAF emblem, knitted by a grandmother to honour her late serviceman husband, I leave feeling that while Innocent hasn’t got all the answers, it’s certainly trying, and it’s has not been spoilt by its success.