Frontier raises the bar on social responsibility

Social and environmental responsibility is a global trend with more and more businesses—even oil companies—promoting themselves as ethical, clean, and “green.” Frontier Natural Products Co-op, based in Norway, Iowa, has walked the ethical talk for more than 30 years.

In 1976, Frontier began as a two-person operation offering hard-to-find herbs, spices, and botanicals to local natural food co-ops. Today Frontier is a leader in natural and organic herbs, spices, seasonings, and aromatherapy with more than 250 employees and annual sales of over $50 million. Organic products account for nearly 40% of those sales.

Bulk products, including herbs, spices, and seasonings, are the biggest part of Frontier’s business. Other top sellers include a line of organic and natural food products called Simply Organic and Aura Cacia aromatherapy and personal care products.

Frontier also distributes other companies’ natural and organic products from its 145,000 square-foot headquarters set amidst the large corn and soybean farms of eastern Iowa.

Co-op structure unique
Cooperatives are common in the natural food industry on the retail level, but not on the manufacturing level, making Frontier unique. Wholesale customers, who include manufacturers, brokers, and natural food buying clubs, own the business. Owner/members provide capital for the business to operate and oversee the business through an elected board of directors. Owner/members total around 18,000.

The co-op structure ensures a strong commitment to quality products and social responsibility, says Kathy Larson, Frontier’s vice president of social responsibility. “It makes you think differently about the business. You know the customer is number one because they pay your wages.”

“Because our member/owners have to personally stand behind our products in their own businesses, they support tough quality standards and thorough testing,” says Steve Krusie, Frontier’s director of public relations.

Well Earth
The co-op structure has also given Frontier a strong emphasis on social and environmental responsibility. “Frontier’s member/owners insist on integrity and principled business dealings from the company they own,” says Krusie.
A good example is Well Earth, Frontier’s program to find and develop ethical sources of high quality raw materials. Frontier is establishing relationships with farmers and suppliers worldwide to purchase other organic raw materials based on certain standards, including quality, Fair-Trade, organics, integrity, social responsibility, and sustainability. Well Earth is based on Frontier’s 30 years experience sourcing quality botanicals and establishing relationships with farmers worldwide.

Well Earth is similar to Fair-Trade certification with its emphasis on social responsibility and sustainability. Frontier began selling Fair-Trade certified teas and vanilla extracts in 2004.

With Well Earth, Frontier has gone one step further by developing a program to meet the needs of its customers and to establish mutually beneficial relationships with suppliers. The program screens potential suppliers to thoroughly evaluate their product quality, operational sustainability, environmental practices, and social responsibility. “Well Earth supports Frontier's mission and values,” says Larson. “It promotes the sustainable production of natural and organic products by building partnerships with suppliers who share our respect for quality botanicals and sound social and environmental principles.”

These principles include safety and fair treatment of workers, sustainable, organic production, environmental stewardship, and community development.

Benefits farmers, consumers
Well Earth is designed to benefit farmer suppliers, says Krusie. “We want to establish long-term viable markets for farmers so they aren’t so vulnerable to market changes. Well Earth aims to support them and keep them committed to producing organic crops.”

In southern India, Frontier is working with a local agricultural company that has developed an organic and biodynamic school where farmers learn about sustainable agriculture and healthy living practices.

Well Earth can provide direct financial contributions as well as assistance with grants and other funding for farmer communities.

Well Earth benefits consumers by providing them with quality organic products and knowledge that their purchases support socially and environmentally responsible production.

To date, Well Earth has certified a peppermint producer in the Northwest US and will be certifying grower/producers in Australia, Turkey, Indonesia, and more during the coming year.

The aim is to move all of Frontier’s suppliers to Well Earth. “We want all of our suppliers to be in the program,” says Larson.

Well Earth could also help Frontier better respond to a common challenge facing many organic food companies: shortages of organic raw materials.

Other green initiatives
Well Earth is one example of Frontier’s commitment to social and environmental responsibility and sustainability. Others include:

  • Purchase of renewable energy credits, called Green Tags, offered by Bonneville Environmental Foundation to offset the global warming pollution impacts of conventional electricity generation by supporting solar and wind energy
  • Donation of one percent of all Frontier’s Simply Organic product sales to organizations that support and promote organic agriculture
  • Recognition by Working Mother magazine in its list of “100 Best Companies in America for Working Mothers”
  • Completion of several energy efficient projects inside and outside the Norway, Iowa, facility
  • A “green” parking lot at Frontier’s Norway headquarters, which filtrates storm water to a wetland area through permeable paving, engineered slope and grading, bio-swales, rain gardens, and planting strips
  • Restoration of nearly one-half of the land at Frontier’s headquarters to tall-grass prairie, wetlands, and gardens
  • With initiatives like these and Well Earth, Frontier continues to raise the bar on what it means to be a socially responsible business. “We always have to ask, ‘what do we want to do to grow in a sustainable way to meet the needs of our members?’” says Larson.

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report October 2007