Vegetarian-Friendly and Cruelty-Free Firms

Still Going Strong After 25 Years

By Wayne Smeltz, PhD

I conducted a study, with the help of the Vegetarian Resource Group, that examined businesses and nonprofits in the healthy product industry from 1987 to 1990. This study included interviews with and surveys of the owners and/or managers of approximately 40 organizations. I asked them about their (1) reasons for becoming a healthy product entrepreneur, (2) value priorities, (3) attitudes toward business and its participants, (4) commitment to the healthy product movement and the importance of feeling part of that movement, (5) personality attributes, and (6) business practices and strategy. The major finding of this study was there were people who started organizations because of their ethical beliefs and the assertion that their activities would improve people's health, the treatment of animals, and/or the environment.

As a follow-up to this study, I sought to learn what happened to the interviewees and their organizations, specifically how many were still functioning after 25 years. In several cases, the interviewee moved on and became part of another organization while their original employer continued to operate.

One aspect of note is the longevity of some of the firms. The longest running has been in business since the early 1960s, producing commercial juicers named Nutrifaster. When I conducted the original interviews, one of the two brothers who founded and ran the firm discussed his future strategy for the business. He was 86 at the time. While the brothers firmly believed that juicing improved one's health, they knew they better fit the traditional profile. The business now appears to be operated by family members, but older juicer models are available on eBay and the like, and advertisers promote that the products were designed by the Austad brothers.

Another organization that has operated for almost as long is Beauty Without Cruelty (BWC). This organization is certainly ethically motivated, having almost founded the cruelty-free cosmetic and body care movement. It also has an interesting structure, with business and nonprofit sub-organizations throughout the world. When interviewed, the CEO expressed some concern with the organization's progress since it seemed to have missed the growth of the industry as other businesses took advantage of their trailblazing efforts. However, BWC remains true to its mission.

Another interesting aspect of the sample is that the four firms in the publishing and media segment of the industry remain viable today, although two of the four have been bought by other firms. The Natural Food Merchandiser has been responsible for the trade show that all in the food and personal care industry attend. The publication was acquired by Penton Media in 1999 and seems to be operating with a similar strategy, producing influential publications in the natural foods and personal care space and still running the Natural Products Expos around the world.

At the time of the original interviews, Vegetarian Times served as the voice of the natural/alternative food movement. It had just been reacquired by its founder, Paul Obis, who was the interviewee. He published the magazine for a few years and sold it again, and it has changed hands several times since. Vegetarian Times continues to have the largest subscriber base in the vegetarian segment, but it has become mainstream in its orientation as it tries to grow beyond the vegetarian market.

The third organization in the media group is the Book Publishing Company, which is an offshoot of The Farm, a Tennessee commune that traces its roots back to the 'return to nature' movement of the 1960s. The publishing arm is still located in the original commune location and has been operating as a separate entity since 1974. Its management has remained the same as when first interviewed and continues on as a champion of balancing ethics, environmental concern, and commerce.

The fourth is, of course, Vegetarian Journal.

Other firms that have remained viable over the 25year period include Galaxy Nutritional Foods, a soy cheese company that was begun in 1972 and is a leader in that market segment. Barbara's Bakery started in 1971 as an organic bakery and has been providing healthful snacks and cookies as part of Weetabix, a British food company, for the last 20 years. ABCO Laboratory has been in business for more than 30 years and is a leading provider of flavors that go into many natural and organic foods. Whole Earth Cooperative of Princeton, New Jersey, has operated since 1970, making it the longest surviving retail food market in that vicinity. It continues to do good works, as it is the first market in the state to embrace wind power for part of its energy needs. Probably the most famous name is Celestial Seasonings, which is now part of Hain and has thrived for more than 25 years. It has been through a few owners and management teams, but the company remains strong. The most successful interviewee had to have been Mark Egide, who has created two highly successful personal care product businesses and sold them to larger firms. His companies helped create standards for that industry, and The Natural Food Merchandiser has named him one of 25 people who made natural beautiful.

When I first undertook this study, there were many skeptics about whether businesses catering to vegetarians and the like could exist and stay vibrant. The evidence above shows that they can, and hopefully the list will continue to grow.

Wayne Smeltz, PhD, is an advisor to The Vegetarian Resource Group and Associate Professor at Rider University, specializing in sustainable and ethical business issues.