Creativity, pragmatism and zeal define social entrepreneur Craig Sams, founder of iconic chocolate maker Green & Black’s
Asking whether “social entrepreneurs” created ethical consumerism or vice versa is a bit like asking which came first, the organic chicken or the free-range egg. By the same token, are they first and foremost moral opinion-leaders, or businesspeople capitalising on a demand?
Craig Sams, founder of the Green & Black’s organic chocolate brand, comes across as less the environmental and social visionary and more the practical businessman, with the success of Green & Black’s coming down to the blend of creativity, opportunism, pragmatism and determination that typifies successful enterprise of any sort.
He concedes that the creation of Green & Black’s came about virtually by accident. He had been producing organic peanut butter under his Whole Earth brand, and discovered that his peanut farmers also produced organic cocoa beans.
Sams freely admits that the strategy evolved as he went along: “We went for 70% [cocoa solids] and we didn’t really think beyond that to be quite honest.” But from the outset, there was an emphasis on where the product came from. “We were the first people who talked about where it came from, had photographs of the farmers, photographs of the trees with cocoa pods on them.” The Green & Black’s Maya Gold Fairtrade brand, produced by a group of smallholders in Belize, was launched in 1994 and recently reached its 15th anniversary.
While Green & Black’s appears to have been in tune with the growth in natural, organic and ethically traded foods, Sams plays down the degree to which he either shaped or capitalised on these trends.
“I have pioneered a lot of things, but an awful lot of that was what I was personally into,” he says. But there is a difference between organic aficionado and entrepreneur. With regard to organic dark chocolate, he adds: “I figured if I wanted it there would probably be 10,000 or 15,000 people out there who would want it and it started to be an interesting business proposition and worth investing in.”
Sams believes social enterprises are defined as much by the interdependent relationships between their stakeholders, and their financial constraints, as by ethical ideals. The lower capital base, “encourages co-dependency with all the stakeholders in your business”, and the result is a more “collaborative and cooperative approach”.
Treating suppliers well represents “enlightened self-interest”, he adds, citing the project in Belize. “At a time when getting good-quality organic cocoa was practically impossible for most people, we sat with it piling up.”
Sams says that spirit of enlightened self-interest has continued under the ownership of Cadbury, which acquired Green & Black’s in 2005. The retention of Sams and other executives as board members, “with the ear of [chief executive] Todd Stitzer”, has been critical in retaining the ethos of the company, while Cadbury had the capital the group needed to become a leading global brand. “We knew they were committed to fuelling the growth in the brand to becoming the biggest organic premium chocolate brand in the world,” Sams says.
Meanwhile, the brand’s profile, PR and its commitment to organic agriculture and environmental and social issues “have all been retained”, but with far larger marketing resources.
Sams concedes that “things could have gone wrong” in selling to a multinational, and believes Cadbury’s own high ethical standards and its willingness to retain the Green & Black’s ethos and allow it to inform its core business, for example with regard to organic farming and the recent decision to switch Dairy Milk to Fairtrade, have been crucial.
Not all stories of such buyouts have such apparently happy outcomes. Sams says he has watched many competitors who “had kept him awake at night” all but disappear having decided to sell out to multinationals. “There are more examples where it hasn’t worked than where it has.”
Amid cynicism about greenwashing, Sams says the moves being made towards more ethical business by major companies are to be welcomed. Some of what is being said may be more PR than substance, but, he points out, it was not even being said 15 years ago. “I believe in self-fulfilling prophecy and I believe in self-fulfilling PR. If you go out and say something often enough it starts to actually happen. So I believe what some people would call the bullshit. It may not be gold standard but it’s going in the right direction.”
Sams himself has moved on from organic foods to carbon sequestering technology through his new company Carbon Gold, though he says his heart “beats a little faster” when he sees Whole Earth Corn Flakes or any of his other products on a shelf. “There’s an emotional attachment that you keep.”
Regarding Green & Black’s in particular, which he says “is still our baby”, Sams recounts with glee that he recently found the brand in a supermarket while on holiday in Barbados. That Green & Black’s is now so widely available and that Craig Sams holidays in Barbados both say something about the brand’s success.
However, cynics may suggest that exiting the organic market might have been a wise move, given the recession and the slowdown in organic sales seen in recent months. Sams, however, believes the decline in organic has been exaggerated by the media.
“Some people are influenced by newspapers – most people are – but the tragedy is that Tesco and Sainsbury’s buyers are influenced by it and so they started scaling down the amount of shelf space they offered to organic in anticipation of what they thought was going to happen, and so to some extent again it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.” However, he is optimistic about the future. “I’m not really worried. There are much deeper trends towards ethical consumerism than the current state of the economy.”
Even though he remains involved with the Green & Black’s and with organic food through the organic bakery and food shop he owns in Hastings, Sams now directs his energies primarily to Carbon Gold, which produces charcoal from biomass, known as Biochar. According to Carbon Gold, “Biochar-based fertilisers can restore soil structure, reducing the need for fertiliser and water, while capturing atmospheric CO2 and permanently burying it in the ground”.
Given his record for being in advance of trends, Sams’ views on carbon are interesting. In essence, he believes the carbon issue will make many of the moral questions we have been wrestling with in business redundant. For example, carbon trading will revolutionise the way we ship food, while “factory farming will fall apart because of its own internal energy contradictions”. On the other hand, small farms and organic agriculture “will be among the winners”.
Listening to Sams speak about carbon gives some clue to his success. He may play down the degree to which an ethical vision has shaped his fortunes but what he and other social entrepreneurs unquestionably bring to their businesses is belief in what they are doing and zeal, and those appear to go a long way.