Community and collaboration has been a vital part of KSV’s DNA, but in times like these, community means that much more. We are fortunate enough be a part of several communities, allowing opportunities for connection, brainstorming and collaboration to help inspire great work and constant conversation.Starting this month, KSV is excited to kick off our Industry Expert Interviews, a new content series that keeps the community spirit alive and well and selfishly, gives us the opportunity to talk to some truly incredible people. These will be longer installments, so we encourage you to grab a cup of coffee, sit back and enjoy “meeting” someone new.
We’re honored to start things off with Rebecca Gildiner, the Director of Impact Strategy at Sir Kensington’s, a fellow B Corp and natural condiments brand based in New York City.
Sir Kensington’s makes lines of mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, and dressings with the goal of bringing integrity and charm to ordinary and overlooked foods. It also has a pretty significant brand purpose, believing that food is the most powerful human connector and to protect that superpower, the brand must work to defend not only the dignity of food but also the supply chains and the people and resources and animals that are part of the business as well.
Check out our conversation with Rebecca below:
Rebecca: Over the past 10 plus years I've worked across the food system in many ways. This work has really stemmed from my love of food and my belief that food is really powerful and has the power to do a lot of good but can also do a lot of harm. I wanted to better understand the role that businesses played in improving the food system. I got my master's in environmental management, where I went in very focused on food systems and corporate sustainability. I got to work with companies like IKEA Food Services in Sweden and Shake Shack to help them form sustainability strategies…Fast forward a little bit to this role at Sir Kensington's, which is really a dream job in a lot of ways. I get to work across departments and across the business to help Sir Kensington's be a more responsible business, in every part of the business...
A lot of my work is around change management and governance, or how the company can work on adjusting its performance reviews to include sustainability and impact considerations. It means setting a sustainability strategy, getting through B Corp certification and working with leadership to understand how sustainability and social responsibility comes into all of our business decisions… Really making sure that everyone at the company has the knowledge that will help them, help drive their responsibility and understand the importance of this work.
KSV: It sounds like you have a lot on your plate, but it sounds incredibly meaningful. In your role it is obviously an important component of your day-to-day to communicate the mission-driven values of Sir Kensington’s to your customers through your marketing team, and through the products you create. Is that something that really makes your product unique and something that consumers really hold onto, appreciate, or something that resonates with them?
Rebecca Gildiner: It's a great question. I think we've always been a values-driven brand. We are the first and only mayonnaise that uses certified humane free-range eggs, which is really one of the gold standards within the industry. And we've only ever used fair trade organic sweeteners, and we've always paid close attention to the partners we work with and the way that we source our ingredients. And that's just been part of our DNA. And I think consumers feel that about us.
…But again, I think we're also realizing what a differentiator our values and our certifications are in the industry as well. I think it's probably more common now, but at the time we were really the first non-GMO condiment brand and, again, our eggs set us apart. I think we're trying to understand how that does help us in the market. B Corp certification has also been a great tool, although there's a lot more work to be done in raising awareness around it. But I think we're also learning what consumers assume about us, and identifying ways that we can constantly improve.
KSV: Something we often notice is that when things are great and (economic) times are normal, people are more willing to go out of their comfort zone and try to be a responsible or more sustainable or thoughtful consumer and go for the brands that embody those beliefs. But when a crisis happens, like where we are now with Coronavirus, consumers fall back on the “safe” products that they know well. As a brand, do you worry that the perception of natural, sustainable, or responsible falls by the wayside versus what's budget friendly and “what do I know works?”
Rebecca Gildiner: …I think price sensitivity is always going to be a challenge for us. We're working within an industry, or within a category, I should say, that is historically cheap. It's a sidekick. It's something that people don't think they need to spend a lot of money on, because it's going on their fancy bread and their fancy meat and their fancy vegetables. I think there's always a different willingness to pay across categories. We see people paying a lot of money for a drink, right? A kombucha, that they'll gulp down in a second. But much more sensitivity toward a jar of something that will last them a month, and maybe costs the same. It's a challenging category in that way. It's really hard to disrupt a category like that, and that's what we're trying to do. I think one of the biggest challenges is in general that willingness to pay and that means that consumers need to understand what they're paying for. Both from a taste and an impact perspective.
KSV: What are some of the other biggest challenges that you might see on a day-to-day or a long term basis?
Rebecca Gildiner: I'd say in my world the challenge is that business is such a big part of the solution… but we’re not working within a system where farmers are being subsidized for responsible production. And so that costs more for us to buy, and unfortunately that means it costs more for consumers to buy. We're still working within this global food system where the environmental and social impacts of food are very much externalized and we don't see government stepping in to encourage long term sustainability in our food system.
I find that's a big challenge for us, that the true value of food is still not recognized by society. Also, a big challenge is that willingness to pay in the sense that sustainability is really confusing and complicated, and there's a lot of competing interests out there. And a lot of mixed messaging. So, if they're not willing to pay more for those things because they don't understand the benefits, then it's much harder for us to justify making those changes internally. For instance, we know that we're a non-GMO brand, and a lot of people think that means organic. And it doesn’t. So how we communicate to consumers why organic is different, why it costs more, the environmental benefits… the benefits to farm workers, all of those things, is a challenge for us where we have to balance that education with price, and get consumers to care.
KSV: What do you think the future holds for successful businesses? How will that idea of success shift in the light of the way that consumers are evolving, and the way that the world is changing and continues to do so?
Rebecca Gildiner: I think that the bar is being raised for businesses. And I think that older businesses that haven't necessarily been paying attention to sustainability are realizing that they need to catch up, and that they will fall by the wayside if they don't. While sustainability is confusing… I also think that consumers are educating themselves more and paying more attention and are open to pushing companies to do better. I think it's not an option anymore for companies to think about sustainability, not just for consumers, but for risks to their own supply chain. Climate change is going to affect all of us. None of us are protected from this. It will of course affect more vulnerable populations the most, which we all have a responsibility to care for. I think it's one thing to say you're doing sustainable things, and it's another thing to have dedicated staff who are bringing that opinion to every table and every business decision, and are setting science-based targets and setting sights on improvement and pushing their company in that direction.
KSV: It feels like in the next five to 10 years it's going to be almost impossible for a business to operate without some type of employee dedicated to sustainability or impact.
Rebecca Gildiner: Yeah. And also just to build off of that, I think what we'll see is businesses that have for so long used Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), or philanthropy, as their stick in the ground for, "this is how we give back," while their supply chains are simultaneously destroying the planet and causing the need for more non-profits to step up and provide services. So, I think we'll see a shift.
KSV: What do you think that we can do to inspire women to participate in important conversations around energy, around social justice, around sustainability? And then how can we encourage young girls all the way up to women right in the middle of their career and the peak of their career to even women in leadership positions currently to show up for those conversations and to fight for the things that are really important to them?
Rebecca Gildiner: I do think that we just need to continue to give women courage to find their voice, and to demand a place at the table. I think that it took me a long time as a woman to recognize that my soft skills were actually strengths. And they were marketable, and they were valuable… It wasn't until I went to graduate school and did a lot of personal work and exploration to realize that actually these skills as a convener and a connector and my emotional intelligence and my collaborative nature, and my ability to work across teams and with many different people and find a common purpose, all of those skills are really valuable. And as a sustainability director, they're as important, if not more important, than my science-based knowledge about sustainability… I've spoken to many women about this same exact thing, and the lack of confidence we often have in feeling like we're good at anything, or selling ourselves, because those skills don't feel valued in the market. I'd encourage women to identify and value those soft skills, and how it brings value to the workplace.
KSV: What is one piece of advice that you can provide when it comes to breaking through to today's customers?
Rebecca Gildiner: I think one thing that's really worked for us that we've focused on a lot is building community. At Sir Kensington's we have a couple different ways that we're doing this. We're trying to disrupt the food industry and a category, and that means finding people that get it and love us. And I think that's a really core part of who we are and also a way that we can organically spread the word about what we do, and spread that love. And so we invest a lot in our community. Not just in social media. We have a group of super fans that we call Taste Buds. This is literally a group of super fans who we ask for their input on our products and we send them things and we engage with them and we have a Slack channel for them and we're growing this community.
And this is only one of our communities. But I think for us, really being able to communicate, get feedback, engage with those consumers that value what we're doing, that get what we're doing, that love what we're about, has enabled us to really spread that love to get a better sense of how we can continue to find people that love us, and that can be part of our community, and be one of our eaters. And so that pertains to both our sustainability attributes and our taste attributes, but I think we focus a lot on this community of people that get it, that get what we're trying to do.
KSV: And finally, let's talk a little bit about what it means to be a B Corp in 2020.
Rebecca Gildiner: From my perspective as a sustainability manager, it's been an incredible badge of pride for the team to carry, but also to push the team to make more commitments. Everyone was so excited when we were certified as a B Corp, it's something we're so proud of. But this isn't the end, this is just the beginning. And part of being a B Corp is continuously improving… improving our score, pushing our standards higher. It's given me a tool to use every time we're making a business decision or working with stakeholders, or pushing new initiatives… It's also been an incredible marketing tool for us, just in terms of aligning with other companies. Being part of this community and being able to put ourselves on a standard next to Ben & Jerry's, and Seventh Generation, and Patagonia. All of these larger companies that we look up to so much. And to be part of that community, and to have access to that community has also been exceptionally valuable…It's really nice to have a community of values-led businesses who are all pushing themselves and thereby pushing each other to constantly improve.
Thank you so much, Rebecca! You can learn more about Sir Kensington’s mission-driven story and delicious condiments here.