EMERYVILLE, CALIF. — As chief executive officer of Clif Bar & Co., Kevin Cleary, who joined the privately held company in 2004, focuses on expanding the brand’s growth in the sports nutrition and healthy snacks categories while leading the company’s day-to-day business operations. Guided by five aspirations — Sustaining our Business, our Brands, our People, our Community and the Planet — Mr. Cleary has grown Clif Bar’s product portfolio, expanded national and international distribution, increased the company’s use of organic and sustainable ingredients and launched the company’s first owned and operated bakeries in Twin Falls, Idaho, and Indianapolis.

Mr. Cleary shared with Food Business News his unique perspective on why we need to break the current food system to make it better for people, communities and the planet. He discussed how the company’s five aspirations are pursued continuously at Clif Bar and how others can incorporate these principles into their business in order to make a difference today, tomorrow and for generations to come.

Kevin Cleary, Clif Bar
Kevin Cleary, c.e.o. of Clif Bar

Food Business News: You refer to Clif Bar as having a different kind of bottom line. Please explain.

Kevin Cleary: At Clif we’re guided by our values, which we call aspirations. When you create a healthy and sustainable food system, it’s easier to ensure that your brands and business are healthy so you can do more good by caring about people, places and communities. By building a healthy, resilient company, we can invest in the long term and be a catalyst for change. We want to do more good in the world.

Contributing to the sustainability of our planet is an important component of our bottom line. At Clif, we’re inspired by the challenge of running a business based on ecological principles. We describe our model for sustainability in four simple words: think like a tree. Trees run on renewable energy, recycle all waste and sustain and improve the places they grow. As a food company, “think like a tree” means we’re working to craft food with organic, sustainable ingredients, made with renewable energy, packed in eco-friendly packaging and delivered by transportation that doesn’t pollute.

Clif KidZ fruit + veggies
Clif Kid Zbar Fruit + Veggie bars contain whole grains and a blend of fruit puree concentrate and vegetable powders that deliver the taste children want with the nutrition parents desire.

How have things changed since you joined the company 12 years ago?

Mr. Cleary: A lot has changed, but a lot has not changed. Our customer has always prioritized health. Now we just have a lot more customers, which means more people prioritize health. And today those customers also want healthy foods that are good for the community and good for the planet. That’s why we know organic is good business.

When I started at Clif in 2004, our products were “made with organic ingredients,” because many of the ingredients we required were not available with organic certification. Or, if they did exist, they were not available in the quantity we needed on a year-round basis. We made the decision to do whatever it takes to source organic ingredients and, at the same time, try to maintain retail prices when switching to organically certified ingredients.

In the beginning, we took a 4% hit to our margin. But we did it, because organic, as I said, is good business. Going organic was a values decision for Clif, and one we continue to pursue. Unfortunately, something that has not changed in the past 12 years is how the overwhelming majority of the food industry sources, produces and distributes food. Less than 1% of U.S. land is farmed organically. Clif would love to procure organic macadamia nuts. They simply do not exist. 

Clif Bar 5 Pillars
The Clif Bar business is run by five aspirations: to sustain business, brands, people, community and planet.

How can food companies assist with improving organic ingredient resources?

Mr. Cleary: Any manufacturer who wants to be in the organic space needs to invest in organic farming. It is paramount to provide farmers transitioning to organic with long-term contracts. We want organic figs and recently entered into a 10-year contract with a fig farmer in California. Once the farm gets through the three-year organic transition period, they know they have Clif as a customer.

Food companies also need to invest in organic research and outreach. In 2015, Clif spearheaded a $2 million investment in an endowed chair positon at the University of Wisconsin for research in organic seed and production practices.

Manufacturers also have to invest in policy reform. We cannot ask farmers to do it themselves. We have to change the food system. I know we can do better than the mere 1% of U.S. land being organic. We must invest in a new generation of farmers to meet our nation’s growing agriculture needs, particularly the growing demand for organic food. Many young farmers want to return to the family farm or work their own land using organic and sustainable practices, but can’t afford to do it. Student loan debt forgiveness is an important step in supporting young farmers and rural economies, and placing our country on a path toward a healthy, just and sustainable food system.

Clif Bar facility
Clif Bar’s new $90 million bakery in Twin Falls, Idaho, is designed to connect its employees with nature and the well-being it provides.

Less than six months ago, Clif opened a first-of-its-kind manufacturing plant in Twin Falls, Idaho. What makes it so unique?

Mr. Cleary: Our new $90 million bakery is a sustainability-focused facility that intentionally uses biophilic design, a cutting-edge approach to design that connects people in buildings with nature and the well-being it provides. The 300,000-square-foot bakery features a host of biophilic design elements integrated into the bakery’s original design, including more than 200 windows, vaulted skylights, light-directing solatubes, indoor walls of recycled barnwood and natural stone, indoor plants and sliding doors that connect an auditorium to an outdoor events space. A packaging area without exterior windows offers wall-projected images of the natural outdoors that rotate daily. Outside we built patios for pleasant outdoor breaks and planted drought tolerant, native plants, including more than 570 trees and 5,700 shrubs and grasses. Slated for the near future are a biking/footpath and organic community garden.

The design of this bakery considered all five of our business aspirations. Studies show biophilia is a win-win for companies and people, resulting in increased feelings of happiness and vitality, reduced stress, lower heart rates, fewer sick days and increased productivity. It was really important to us that our Twin Falls bakery embodied our company values. We wanted it to be a healthy, welcoming place for people to work — a workplace that sustains our people, the community and the planet.

Luna Bar
Luna, the first women’s nutrition bar, now includes three decadent dark chocolate flavors, each with five grams of sugar. Like all Luna bars, these new flavors are gluten free, non-G.M.O., and made with organic ingredients such as organic rolled oats.

In addition, we designed the Twin Falls bakery with overall sustainability in mind. The bakery’s green building design elements include hybrid cooling towers that use about a third less water than most conventional bakeries. On-demand conveyors, L.E.D. lighting, a reflective roof and a water source heat pump help the bakery use about 20% less energy than most conventional bakeries. Efficient refrigeration equipment and processes trim approximately 40% off typical bakery refrigerant emissions. And, 100% of the electricity required to power the bakery is generated from green, renewable energy from an Idaho wind farm. 

So, what does the future look like for Clif?

Mr. Cleary: We are excited about our five bottom-line business model and the results that it can drive. As we look to the future, we have an opportunity to scale the positive impact we can create through this model. Recognizing that a healthy, just and sustainable food system starts with organic, we will be increasing our use of organic ingredients in the years to come while continuing to advocate for organic agriculture and the well-being of rural communities.