Natural Medicine Journal interviews Climate Collaborative Director, Erin Callahan

Here’s How the Natural Products Industry Is Tackling Climate Change

An interview with Erin Callahan, director of the Climate Collaborative

By Natural Medicine Journal, October 2019 Vol. 11 Issue 10

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The mission of the Climate Collaborative is to leverage the power of the natural products industry to positively impact climate change. Their goal is to bring the industry together in an effort to reverse climate change. In this interview, the organization’s director, Erin Callahan, describes how they intend to achieve this lofty goal.

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Approximate listening time: 25 minutes

Here’s more NMJ coverage on how climate change will impact our food supply:

About the Expert

Erin Callahan, director of the Climate Collaborative

Erin Callahan is the director of the Climate Collaborative, responsible for management and execution of the Collaborative’s work, including all programming, communications, and outreach. Erin has a range of corporate campaigning and sustainability experience. She previously worked for CDP, managing corporate engagement for the We Mean Business coalition’s commitments campaign. In that role, Erin worked with hundreds of the world’s largest companies, industry groups, and investors, supporting them in making leadership commitments on climate change. She has also worked in public relations and international development and earned a master’s degree in international relations and economics from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. She is based in Oakland, CA.

Transcript

Karolyn Gazella: Hello. I’m Karolyn Gazella, the publisher of the Natural Medicine Journal. Today we are tackling the big topic of reversing climate change. My guest is Erin Callahan, who is the director of Climate Collaborative. Erin, thanks so much for joining me.

Erin Callahan: Thanks for having me.

Gazella: Well, first let’s have you tell us a little bit about the history of the Climate Collaborative.

Callahan: Yeah. I’d love to. Well, thank you again for having me, I’m really excited to talk about some of our work. So the first thing to note is that we’re a relatively new organization. We launched about 2 and a half years ago, just over that, at Natural Products Expo West, which is the largest food show in the US.

And we launched because it did become really clear that within the natural product space, which is the fastest growing part of the food and ag sector and full of innovative companies, who are really helping define their mission and work via social impact and issues related to it, there wasn’t yet a convening space for companies to come together on climate change. And we in fact did this study that showed that around 97% of the companies we surveyed really understood the urgency to be doing something on climate change, but almost 80% of them didn’t know how to translate that understanding into action. There was a big gap between knowing that they wanted to do something and having the capacity to tackle it within their businesses.

And so we launched to kind of address that gap. We really wanted to create a community of companies within the industry who could learn from each other, move forward together and get the rest of the industry really excited about climate change. And so that’s what we’ve been trying to do for the past 2 and a half years. And I can certainly talk about the ways in which we do that, if that would be useful.

Gazella: Yeah. Let’s start with what you’ve been focusing on since 2017 when you started. So what’s been the focus over the last couple of years?

Callahan: Yeah. Well, you know, when Jessica Roth, the founder of Happy Family Organics the baby food company, and Lara Dickinson, the founder of OSC2, they were the cofounders of the Climate Collaborative and they really wanted to launch it as an industry collaboration.

So we’re a project of 2 organizations, SFTA and OSC2, and have collaboration deeply built into our model. And so over the past year we’ve really been working to try and extend that, kind of, baseline of collaboration and understanding that to tackle a problem as big as climate change, we can’t act alone. No one in the industry can think that they’re going to solve it on their own in a silo, so we’ve really been trying to build robust industry collaboration.

And we’ve done that by creating this roadmap of nine commitment areas that represent the key emissions drivers for most companies in the sector. So it’s packaging, food waste, agricultural practices, transportation, policy engagement, and we ask companies to make commitments, public commitments, in one or all of those areas. And that sends a message out to the industry that, “Hey. We are taking this seriously, we’re setting public goals, and we are working as part of a bigger movement within the industry to do this.”

And so we asked companies to make commitments and then we help them on the implementation side. So we host webinars, we connect companies to partners and solutions providers, we try to connect companies to case studies and representations of what best practice looks like within the industry and work really closely with a really wide range of partners. And, crucially, we do this all for free.

We’re a nonprofit, so it’s really important to us to not have cost, or any other issue, be a barrier to entry for companies. We work mostly with small and medium-sized companies who otherwise might not have the resources to start tackling this stuff. And so we really want to enable companies, regardless of where they’re getting started, to be able to get on a pathway to action. And to do so as part of a really whole of industry movement.

So we have everything from farmers and producers, to distributors and food retailers and brands, all working together collectively across the supply chain. Recognizing you need every link to really make change. And so that’s been the baseline for the past 2 and a half years has really been building a strong base of companies who are committed to action. Kind of building this movement within the industry, and then starting to go down the road of providing really robust programming that can help them on the implementation side.

You know, our theory of change is commit, act, impact, and we’re kind of trying, you know, over the course of years of being around, to move companies from making these public commitments toward acting on them and then ultimately seeing real impact in the industry. And that’s been the journey so far.

Gazella: Yeah. I think it’s brilliant. I mean, that’s really why I was drawn to your organization, because you have this holistic collaborative from start to finish and you’re getting commitments from organizations. So how many organizations have made this commitment that you’re talking about? You know, you have 9 commitment areas, and they need to commit to 1 or all, how many organizations have done so?

Callahan: Yeah. It’s really incredible. We’ve got over 400. We’ve got nearly 450 companies signed up. We’re at about 440 companies who’ve made over 1,600 commitments.

And that’s, I think, over 2 a day. I did the math recently, since we launched, commitments coming in. And, in fact, our busiest single month ever was this past August 2 and a half years in. And so I think what that shows is that the energy and momentum and sense of importance and value of what we’re doing is only picking up as companies see climate change impacting their supply chains more and more and hear their customers talking about it and inherit it becoming a policy issue ahead of the 2020 elections. It’s only becoming more important and central to what companies are doing, and that is incredibly heartening to see. We are so happy to see that progress.

And so, yeah, we’ve got about 440 companies committed. They’ve made… You know, those represent General Mills and Dannon, really large food companies that everyone here has heard of and probably have their products in the pantry, but also really small startups and everything in between. So we’re really happy to work with kind of a really wide range of companies who are at every stage of the sustainability journey and kind of going really deeply on things. Like packaging, in some cases, and, in some cases, trying to tackle everything. And, you know, so we really do have the full spread represented.

Gazella: That’s great. Well, congratulations on that progress so far. Now, obviously, your organization feels climate change is a big problem and we here at The Natural Medicine Journal are trying to cover this as well, so how concerned should we be about climate change? You know, what damage can and will occur with climate change if we don’t act together, as you’re talking about?

Callahan: Yeah. Well, a lot is the short answer. And I think… I feel like everyone, this year especially, something’s changed and we’re all kind of scared of looking around and seeing… You know, this August, for example, all of us were watching sort of helplessly as the Amazon burned, and Hurricane Dorian just hovered as this slow-moving, giant storm over The Bahamas, and just these great tragedies affecting millions of lives and livelihoods and communities and just not being able to do anything. And, you know, that’s a trend that’s only worsening.

I’m from the Mississippi/Gulf Coast and grew up watching hurricanes get worse throughout my childhood. And Katrina destroyed my hometown. And so these are very visceral things that I think we’re starting to see and not be able to not connect… We can no longer avoid connecting it to climate change, and so I think everyone’s sort of feeling it very viscerally.

And then, you know, on the data side, we’ve got a huge amount of evidence to back up the fact that climate change is happening. It’s getting worse. We’re already seeing the impacts, and if we don’t act quickly and at scale, the problems are going to be tremendous. You know, when we look at UNFCCC Reports, and even an EPA report that came out in November 2018, that showed that absent action, this could slash 1/10 of the US economy by 2100. You know, the UN has showed us that we have about 10 years to act to avoid catastrophic damage. We’re on a road to exceed 1.5 degree increase in global temperatures, and we have to stop that. We have to take action to reverse it.

And, you know, I moved to California year ago and within a couple of months was wearing a mask to avoid the smoke and fires, and saw my friends have to pull their kids out of school, and so I… It’s a very emotional thing and it’s a very practical thing that we have a lot of evidence backing up the risk of inaction. And getting into the health a little bit, it’s very clear that climate change is absolutely a public health issue, in addition to an environmental issue and so many other types of issues. And so I think part of the conversation is how do we break this scary complex issue out of a silo of just being isolated to kind of environmentalism? And really focus on how is this having an impact on generations? How is it impacting the lives and livelihoods of the poorest people who are the most vulnerable to climate impacts? The youngest people who are going to bear the brunt of the problems that we see now?

So, you know, I think that that’s all becoming increasingly clear and hard to ignore, which is, you know, both heartening and terrifying. It’s been really great to see the type of action that happened last week at the climate strikes in New York, right? I think they had to shut down Battery Park because there were so many people gathered. And this is all because of 16-year-old climate activists, Greta Thundberg, who, I think, is just been one person who has created this giant, global movement that gives me real hope. But it also just shows the energy and strength behind how many young people are recognizing the threat to their future that they see.

Gazella: Yeah. I would agree. Well said. And before we get into the practical information, you know in the description of this an interview, I called your goal to reverse climate change lofty. I was actually surprised when I read on your website that the goal was to reverse climate change. What do you think? Is this a pretty lofty goal? And, even more important, is that a realistic goal?

Callahan: Well, yes, it is a very lofty goal. And I think we absolutely can’t do it single-handedly, so I don’t have any illusions. As much as it would be wonderful if I could work with these 450 companies to single-handedly reverse climate change, I don’t think that’s possible.

I think what we’re trying to do at the Climate Collaborative is highly ambitious, and, essentially, what we’re trying to do is create a new model of doing business within the natural product space that is replicable and scalable. And that shows that there is a way that companies can take advantage of the tremendous opportunity that responding to climate change represents. Be first movers on creating new systems and ways of doing business that are an inevitability, I really believe. In terms of new ways of doing agriculture that helps restore carbon in the soil, new types of packaging, reductions in food waste. The shift toward these types of practices is inevitable, and why not have this innovative industry be at the helm of creating those shifts?

And so, you know, that is really… We want to create a model that then cascades across the food sector. And I think… So when you ask, are we looking to really reverse climate change? I think that when you look at the fact that the food and agricultural system accounts for about 23% of global emissions, it’s going to be absolutely key to solving climate change and have this huge kind of double-edged sword of being a huge potential opportunity as a solution, through carbon soil sequestration and other mechanisms, but also is a tremendous risk factor if we don’t take action. And so I really look towards the types and group of companies that we work with as leaders in creating those new systems.

And so maybe not reversing all of the climate change, but maybe reversing how the food sector responds to climate change. And any company with an agricultural supply chain, how they can shift their practices to really create a new model for the food system. And so I hope we can do at least that much. I still believe that is an incredibly lofty goal, in that there are a lot of structural barriers to getting there. When you look at certain policies that disincentivize the types of practices that our companies are looking to start making or already making, and then the absence of things like a price on carbon and absence of policy and incentives rather than disincentives for farmers to be changing their practices to help restore carbon in the soil and all of that.

So that’s why policy is such a crucial piece of what we do as one of our 9 commitment areas. And it’s potentially the most important, because every company in our network could get to net zero emissions and it would be the drop in the bucket, when you look at global emissions. So policy has to go alongside whatever action that companies take, and my hope is you can then create a virtuous circle where you have companies acting and proving policy mechanisms can support these actions at scale, and then wider set of businesses taking up these policies and then you kind of create that virtuous circle.

So, that’s my hope. But I completely agree, it is still really lofty. But I think we don’t have really any other choice but to be ambitious and lofty in our goal setting these days. So, I am hopeful.

Gazella: Well, I agree. And I was going to ask you, “Why the natural health industry?” But you bring up such a good point, if you can create this new model that can then be replicated, you could have that ripple effect and have that, as you mentioned, cascade into the food sector. So to me that makes sense, so now I’m feeling better about my term lofty. Because I think-

Callahan: Oh. Good.

Gazella: Yeah. That makes total sense to me now. So let’s get to the heart of the matter. So exactly how is your organization going to reverse climate change? Or, you know, if we put this into more digestible pieces, how is your organization going to create this new model of doing business that can then be replicated?

Callahan: Yeah. Well, the first thing is getting companies to make public events. And I think that… You know, I mentioned before, and kind of getting to your point around why the natural health and products industry, and I think that is because it’s almost a quarter of global emissions when you look at the food and land system. There was just a Land Use Report that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put out that just showed how critical the sector is in responding to climate change, and that kind of double-edged sword of it being a solution and a problem.

So that’s why these companies. And, you know, I think that within the food sector, our companies already have a status of first movers. When you look at issues like organic and non-GMO, fair trade, the natural products space, they’ve been first movers on those. And then have then become standards that we all know, we all shop and look for those labels, and we’re all kind of very aware and it’s cascaded across the food sectors. So we have model of what it could be and how that scale could work and look, and now we need to make climate that issue.

And that’s part of the type of model we’ve tried to adopt here at the Climate Collaborative. In terms of how we do that on climate, it is predominantly through our commitment areas. So we have these 9 commitment areas. They’re focused around carbon farming and regenerative agricultural practices. So it’s changing on-farm practices so that you’re pulling carbon into the soil and keeping it there, and that things like compost applications and cover crops. Intensive rotational grazing, when you’re looking at pastures with animals. So changing your on-farm practices to really help draw down carbon, and that’s a huge opportunity.

If, you know, you’re familiar with Paul Hawken’s Project Drawdown, which is this giant list of climate solutions, that’s number 11 on the list. Another one that we work on, number 3 of his solutions, is food waste. And that is, you know, about a third of food is wasted and so we’re trying to help at least the corporate part of that, so companies and their supply chains, to reduce food waste. And at source. So not just looking at waste diversion and donations, but really looking at how can we reduce the waste that’s produced in the first place and make a more efficient supply chain from producers to grocers selling it to consumers? So we had a big project this year where we did intensive consultations with retailers in the US on reducing their food waste in store.

Packaging is another really big issue that we look at. It’s the single biggest challenge for companies, you know? Everyone, I think, has paid attention to the plastic straw bans, and plastic in the oceans, and been very aware… It’s a very visceral thing because you hold it in your hands and you see it, and then you throw it in the trash or the recycling and… It was just a very visceral way to be aware of your footprint, I think. And so that has been the single biggest issue and challenge area for the companies we work with and we do a lot to try and help them reduce their packaging impact. And, you know, there’s policy, energy efficiency, switching to renewable energy, so we’re looking at very concrete practical solutions that are very action-focused.

You know, I would say that for companies it’s also really important to take a look at your footprint and say, you know, “Where are my emissions concentrated?” Start measuring and setting goals, and so we do encourage that. And, above all, we want companies to just say, “Okay. Let’s start taking action. Let’s start doing something and be part of, kind of, a larger community of companies within the industry doing that.” So we do that through working groups. We have one on regenerative ag, we have on consumer engagement, one just for retailers and we really try to just kind of get companies able to talk to each other a little bit more about their efforts.

So that’s a little bit. I’m happy to go into more detail, but those are a few of our projects.

Gazella: No. I think that’s great because what we’re going to do is we’re going to put a link to the Climate Collaborative website, and I know that you list these 9 commitments. And you have a ton of information on your website, videos and such, so I highly recommend that any manufacturers who are listening, you know, or anybody really, click over to the Climate Collaborative to learn more.

Now, technically our journal is a part of the integrative health community and not necessarily the natural health community, per se, with a lot of retailers and manufacturers and such, but I’m wondering how our readers, are individual doctors, can help with this effort. So what advice do you have for the individual? And, in particular, I mean, our doctors are seeing patients and they’re influential, you know? So what advice do you have for them to make an impact in this area of climate change?

Callahan: Yeah. Well, a couple of things come to mind there.

Firstly, we host one day of the year called Climate Day, which is my favorite day of the year. It’s where we bring the whole industry together and get a set of thought leadership speakers, and everyone in the room just talking about the biggest issues that we need to tackle on climate change over the next year. And last year one of our keynotes with Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, which, I think, if there’s a company who’s doing just fantastic work on climate change and making their whole mission focused around reversing, it’s Patagonia. They’ve just been real leaders. And he was interviewed by Dr. Zach Bush who some of your listeners might be familiar with. I actually wasn’t too familiar with him, but it might be an interesting conversation to reference in this because his whole talk was really around the relationship between the microbiome in all of us and climate, our biome. And what are those connecting, and how does one impact the other, and how does how we manage the climate then filter down to the nutrition and the food that we eat? And, overall, the microbiome and health of our bodies?

And so I just want to reference that, because I think that there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening. A lot of interesting research happening there right now that I’m fascinated by and there’s a lot to mine there. So, that is one thing. The other thing is, I think when it comes to doctors, or really anyone as an educated, active citizen, 1) voting and advocacy matters. And then, 2) being a really conscious consumer. And asking the businesses that you’re purchasing from and working with what their practices are, and asking them questions about their packaging, asking them questions about their footprint. And business is new because of stakeholder action and requests and consumers are such a crucial stakeholder. It’s why we’re launching this consumer aspect of the product this year.

But I think creating an aware base of people who are talking to these companies, and working with them, in some cases, and shopping for… You know, with their products. Make smart choices but with your dollars. We have a group of fantastic companies that are really piloting new work and it’s really important that we acknowledge that through engagement with those companies, through dialoguing. By pushing them farther and getting engaged in their mission, but also just generally when shopping by making really informed choices about the company that you’re looking at.

And that’s a very hard thing to do. I mean, I’m a consumer and it’s really hard to hold the fact that I need something in a certain price point, I need it to be really good, I need it to be exactly for what I’m doing, I need to get it pretty conveniently. And then also, on top of that, I need to care about what’s its footprint? Where did they source the ingredients? You know? And then also is it fair trade? Is it… You know, are they using renewable energy? What’s the packaging? It’s a lot to hold, but I think the more you can be okay and accept that complexity and really try to make informed purchasing decisions, the farther where we’re going to go.

And, luckily, we’re already seeing real movement. You know, I think 70% of Americans are looking to see more from the companies they’re doing from a study that came out last year. I mean, you look at the younger demographics, those numbers get even higher and they really are making their purchasing decisions based on the footprint and choices of the companies they purchase from. So I think the more we can all lean into that, the better.

Gazella: Yeah. I would agree. And I think that’s great advice. So, in closing, why don’t you go ahead and describe some of your short-term goals moving forward. Say, within the next year or 2, what is your organization want to accomplish in the near term?

Callahan: Yeah. Well, firstly, on the outreach side, we’ve got an incredible base of companies committed. We’re at about 440, like I mentioned, I want us to get to 500 by March of 2020. That is my goal.

It really matters to keep that energy and momentum up, and so I’m looking to bring on new companies. We’re really looking to actually move in to a lot of health and nutrition companies and we’re going to be at a conference in a couple of weeks talking to them. And, you know, that’s kind of a subsector of the industry that we really want more actively engaged, so that’s the one thing. And then on the programming side and the work of it side, we’re just over a year away from the 2020 elections. Giving our companies pathways toward active engagement on policy issues ahead of that election and getting them informed on what they can be seeking out on and supporting, is a real, real priority of mine. We’re working with a great set of policy partners on that front to do that and that’s something that we’re going to really try to be doing a lot of over the next year.

Outside of that, I mentioned consumer engagement. We are launching a consumer engagement part of the project over the next year, where we’re trying to actually create a common set of messages that companies are using to engage in dialogues with consumers. And also to raise awareness on specific issues. Like soil health, like food waste, packaging, and really try to create dynamic, fun, engaging conversations with consumers that are action-focused as well. So we’re hoping to really get that off the ground in the next year as well.

And then our rooted community, the regenerative agriculture community that we have, we meet 4 to 6 times a year right now and going to be doing our first on-farm site visit over the next year as well. And I really hope we can be doing more of that, and constantly just trying to roadmap the business case for action. I think a lot of companies understand the altruistic and moral reasons to act, but when you back that up with saying that there are real business cases to be doing certain things like this, especially when you’re working upstream in your supply chain with farmers who have very small margins and also really know… They know how best to manage their farms, and so when you have these conversations, what are the incentives we can provide and what data do we have to back that up?

So we’re constantly looking to increase the amount of data that we have on that and to connect your companies to it to really help promote these practices within the industry. So, those are a few key priorities. I think, overall, we’re also just trying to keep the energy and momentum up in the industry. Climate is a really complex issue with a lot of nuances and not a lot of clear black and white solutions that we can just easily adopt, and so the more we can get companies excited and motivated and willing to work together, which I think they increasingly are, the more opportunity we have to really see transformative change in how the industry at scale is really attacking some of these issues.

So that’s my biggest hope. Is that we just keep the energy up, from as wide a group of stakeholders as possible, around focusing on climate and moving forward with real action.

Gazella: Well, those sound like some great goals and it sounds like you’re going to be very busy in the coming couple of years.

Callahan: I think so. Yeah.

Gazella: Yeah. Well, I just want to congratulate you on creating the… Well, your founders creating he Climate Collaborative and your work as the director. I really applaud you. I think it’s great work. It is lofty and it’s huge, but it’s so important.

So thank you so much for joining me today and telling us about your work. And I encourage our listeners to go and check out the Climate Collaborative, and thank you, Erin, for joining me today.

Callahan: Thank you so much.

Gazella: Have a great day.

Callahan: You too.

About the Author

Natural Medicine Journal is an electronic peer-reviewed journal and open access website dedicated to the field of integrative medicine.

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