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Clif Bar Proves That Corporate Social Responsibility Can Win Customers

By Bill Roth

Year after year, Clif Bar proves that corporate social responsibility wins customers. The company is growing at a 17 percent annual compounded rate. That is exceptional in an economy struggling to achieve 3 percent growth. Further so, Clif Bar achieves 17 percent compounded annual growth by running its business to achieve five aspirations for profits, brand, people, community and the environment.

Corporate social responsibility is not a business function like finance or operations at Clif Bar. Being purposeful is at the core of the company and how it measures performance. It is Clif Bar's secret sauce for winning customers in the highly competitive food market segment.

Clif Bar links purpose and business growth

Today's business environment can be characterized as a race to the bottom on price. In this business model, people and products are commodities. Only high-volume, low-cost competitors win.

But money is not the sole consumer issue. Market research documents that consumers seek purpose and values in what they buy and who they buy from. Here are three examples of how the consumer search for purpose is reshaping our economy and creating business opportunities:

  1. Our national weight crisis is very real to moms and millennials. These key consumers are searching for foods that taste good, are affordable and have authentic health benefits.

  2. The vast majority of Americans believe global warming is real and manmade. Americans seek to buy from businesses that are part of the solution and not part of the problem. This trend has resulted in renewable energy now representing 50 percent or more of our new power generating capacity. Voters support growth of renewable energy over the growth of fossil energy by a 4 to 1 margin.

  3. How a business treats its customers, work associates and the disadvantaged is a major consumer concern. Consumers do not want to buy seafood connected to slave labor. They do not want to buy clothes made by children. And the millennial generation, the most diverse in U.S. history, will not tolerate a company that discriminates.

Clif Bar demonstrates the business case that a company can achieve superior financial results by meeting these types of consumer expectations. Clif Bar is not alone in demonstrating that purposefulness sells.

Many of our volume retailers are now Green Giants selling over a billion dollars worth of green products annually. For example, Costco is now the largest organic food retailer selling $4 billion annually. Target’s Made to Matter product line generates $1 billion annually, and products that satisfy Walmart's Sustainability Index now generate $1.5 billion in annual sales.

Clif Bar’s CEO Kevin Cleary on how to be purposeful and profitable

Here's how Clif Bar's CEO Kevin Cleary explains the company's success:

“Our culture is our competitive advantage!”

Cleary defines culture as how people work together. His anchoring leadership goal is to connect people to what matters. Connecting people to what matters drives product design. It drives the design of the work environment. It exemplifies their brand equity. Ultimately, it is the link between the company's purpose and profits.

You see this in Cleary’s execution of Clif Bar’s five aspirations. Under his leadership, Clif Bar built one of our country’s first LEED Platinum corporate headquarters. This building aligns with the company’s environmental aspiration. But it is also is an example of Cleary’s leadership in embracing best practices that improve employee productivity, such as Biophilic Design. Under Cleary’s leadership, Clif Bar also doubled its business size. But this business result was achieved while only increasing the number of employees by about 50 percent.

Cleary and his team also use the company’s five aspirations in determining how to invest in the business. The company just launched its first bakery, a $90 million investment. It did not qualify potential locations in the traditional economic development process that is heavily focused on least cost. Instead the company applied all five aspirations of business, brand, people, community and environment in assessing where to locate.

On that basis, Clif Bar choose Twin Falls, Idaho. Tellingly, this town’s motto is, “People serving people.” Doesn’t that sound like Clif Bar? And of course, the company built its bakery using Biophilic Design to make sure employees stay connected to the beauty of Twin Falls while on the job.

If your business is in search of double-digit growth, this video interview with Clif Bar CEO Kevin Cleary conducted at Sustainable Brands 2016 is a must-watch. In it, Cleary speaks to how he is growing the business. He explains in more detail how the company is realizing increased worker productivity. He shares how the company’s supply chain has engaged in collaborative learning to lower costs and emissions. Most importantly, Cleary outlines how Clif Bar has successfully linked purpose and profits.


Image courtesy of Clif Bar (press use only)

Bill Roth headshot

Bill Roth is a cleantech business pioneer having led teams that developed the first hydrogen fueled Prius and a utility scale, non-thermal solar power plant. Using his CEO and senior officer experiences, Roth has coached hundreds of CEOs and business owners on how to develop and implement projects that win customers and cut costs while reducing environmental impacts. As a professional economist, Roth has written numerous books including his best selling The Secret Green Sauce (available on Amazon) that profiles proven sustainable best practices in pricing, marketing and operations. His most recent book, The Boomer Generation Diet (available on Amazon) profiles his humorous personal story on how he used sustainable best practices to lose 40 pounds and still enjoy Happy Hour!

Read more stories by Bill Roth