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Clif Bar: Raises the Bar on Sustainability

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Every company cares about the bottom line.

And, increasingly, progressive firms are concerned with the triple bottom line, weighing their social and environmental impacts alongside profits.

But Clif Bar & Company is riding out ahead of the pack on a five-spoked wheel, a quintuple-bottom-line approach that it calls its five aspirations to sustain “our business, our brands, our people, our community and the planet.”

On a bike wheel with five spokes, each spoke is critical and has to have a similar amount of tension for the wheel to roll smoothly. Clif Bar is equally committed to sustaining our people, our communities, the planet, our business and our brands – all in concert with one another. –Kevin Cleary, President and COO, Clif Bar & Company

Simply put: Clif Bar President and Chief Operating Officer Kevin Cleary views business as a means to a better world. He visited the Graduate School of Management’s Bay Area campus in October as a Dean’s Distinguished Speaker, sharing his insights into sustaining inspiration and running a privately held, employee-owned, socially responsible business.

Clif Bar is a leading maker of nutritious, all-natural, organic foods and drinks for sport and healthy snacking. The company has enjoyed remarkable growth since its founding nearly 20 years ago. The Emeryville, Calif.–based firm’s revenue topped $235 million in 2009. Last year, CLIF BAR was the No. 1 bar in all channels combined.

Cleary said the firm’s five bottom lines have been “key to our success financially, to our company culture and to our organization as a whole.” The former senior vice president of marketing at R.R. Donnelley, Cleary joined Clif Bar in 2004 as executive vice president of sales. Two years later he was named COO, and he became president in 2009.

Gary Erickson’s experience eating “some other bars” during a grueling 170-mile bike ride led him to create his own and to launch Clif Bar in 1992, which he named after his father. Eight years later, as the increasingly competitive energy bar industry consolidated under big names Nestlé and Kraft, Erickson turned down a $120 million buy-out offer. Cleary said Erickson made “a clear commitment to running a different kind of business.”

True to its mission to “work in harmony with nature,” Clif Bar hired an ecologist as its director of sustainability. To provide fresh ideas and perspectives, the company has hosted speakers including Al Gore; writer Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma; and Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface Carpets.

An employee ‘‘eco posse” finds ways to reduce the company’s ecological footprint, from on-site composting to greener product packaging practices. In 2005 the company first offset the carbon costs of its employees’ commutes by planting 30,000 trees.

Clif Bar has gone from buying two million pounds of organic ingredients in 2002, to purchasing more than 43 million pounds last year, making its diverse product lines nearly 70 percent organic. Ramping up on organic has been a big success. The company posted a 24 percent compounded annual growth rate from 2005–2010, and reaped social and environmental benefits that include decreased use of pesticides and fossil fuels, cleaner air and water, more nutritious products and healthier working conditions for its supplier farmers.

Wrapping up, Cleary proudly pointed to the latest “Breakaway Brands” survey conducted by Landor Associates and published by Forbes, which measures brand momentum over three years. Clif Bar topped the 2010 list of the nation’s 10 hottest brands, besting Facebook, Google, Apple and Disney.

Clif Bar claimed the number one spot, at least in part, because of “its good deeds,” noted Forbes. “The company donates money to wind farms, powers delivery vans with biodiesel and encourages employees to volunteer for good causes…. By practicing what it preaches, Clif Bar is a classic story of the little brand that could—and did.”

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