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Green business: Ella's Kitchen

Eifion Rees

21st December, 2010

Organic baby food company Ella's Kitchen is already big in the UK and Scandinavia, and now aiming to crack the US. Co-founder Alison Lindley discusses the difficulties of keeping it green during a period of meteoric growth

Most of us are well acquainted with the notion of pester-power – brands market products to children, children pester parents, nerves get frayed, products get bought.

But Ella’s Kitchen has taken it to another level. The company creates the kind of baby food parents wish their ankle-biters would sink their teeth into: healthy, nutritious and organic. By packaging it in fun, multicoloured, tactile pouches, and above all making it tasty, the company is helping parents turns the tables, manipulating their children into agitating for something that's good for them.

It’s a business model that's proving as bankable as it is fiendishly clever. Launched in 2005 by former Nickelodeon executive Paul Lindley and branded in honour of his daughter Ella, now 11, the company's turnover has doubled every year since 2008, from £3.8 million to £8.4 million to £16.4 million. Alison Lindley, the snappily titled Head of Giving Stuff Back – and mother of Ella – is confident that next year will see it double again.

She says that one Ella's Kitchen pouch is consumed every second - that's 100,000 a day - and the company now accounts for 14 per cent of the UK’s wet baby food market. It's proof positive that people are increasingly concerned to feed their children healthy food (and one in the eye for those who greatly and gleefully exaggerate the demise of organic food).

An appetite for success

It’s green credentials are also to people's taste. Along with a raft of awards, a Mum’s View survey of 10,000 women recently found it was the most trusted baby food brand and 16th most trusted brand generally in the UK.

Ella’s Kitchen products are now stocked by all major suppliers in the UK, in Scandinavia and are making strong inroads into the US, while a fluttering UAE flag on the website leads to a cheery ‘coming soon’ sign, complete with smiley face.

Beneath the primary colours and photographs of cute kiddies, however, is a steely business machine that appears to be gearing up for world domination. ‘The company is expanding quite a bit – in fact it’s been growing massively since day one,’ Lindley says. ‘It seems to be taking off hugely in the US, which is a big challenge, so we’re trying to keep up with that.’

Its growing popularity means it cannot make any concessions to local or seasonal fruit and vegetables, however. Indeed, as is made clear on the website: ‘We have always prioritised health and nutritional value, but never at the expense of either taste or convenience.’

‘For the size and scale that we are, having to fulfil orders with all the major retailers, much as it would be lovely to source everything locally and seasonally within the UK it’s just not possible,’ says Lindley. ‘So we’re doing what we can to keep everything without going too far away’ – she says most of the ingredients are sourced from within Europe and all comply with EU organic standards (the company works with certifying agencies including IFOAM) – ‘and we certainly don’t use any air-freight or anything.’

The bananas used in Ella’s Kitchen Stage 1 Apple and Banana Baby Food or Banana Baby Brekkie come from slightly further afield, sourced from a Soil Association-registered supplier in Ecuador and shipped to the UK. Lindley points out that the suppliers have won social responsibility awards for their work with small-scale farmers employing ‘old-fashioned biodiversity’, to guarantee ‘full traceability, field to farm, factory to family’.

The pouch problem

One of the major problems for new green businesses is that they don’t yet have the cash – and therefore the clout – to influence their manufacturers or suppliers.

With 11 ranges already launched and more products in the pipeline, the manufacturing of the distinctive Ella's Kitchen's pouches is outsourced to factories in Scotland, France and Italy. ‘Not many places have the machinery to create the pouches we use,’ explains Lindley.

Stage 1 Baby Food, Baby Brekkie and Smoothie Fruit pouches are made from a layer of PE, a layer of PET and a layer of aluminium; Stage 2 pouches have an additional layer of OPA and Stage 3 pouches are made from PET, HB, BONYL and PP – all of which means that the pouches are not currently recyclable in the UK.

‘We use pure ingredients but to give them a shelf-life they have to be preserved in some way,’ says Lindley. ‘The aluminium forms an impermeable barrier that does that, meaning we don’t have to add preservatives and additives to the food.’

So it’s a trade-off: a healthier product but environmentally unhealthy packaging? She is quick to point out that the pouch format is the greenest option at the company’s disposal: an independent lifecycle analysis found that it requires 80 per cent less material to make a pouch than to create an equivalent glass, Tetra Pak or PET plastic bottle, and also that manufacturing, transporting and disposing of them uses signficantly less energy.

To address the recycling issue the company launched an ‘upcycling’ scheme in March, asking parents to collect empty pouches and Freepost them to Terracycle to be turned into Ella’s Kitchen lunchboxes and similar - half a million have already been diverted from landfill. Another lifecycle analysis suggests this eliminates 192g of CO2 per pouch compared to 6.33g with recycling. Lindley adds that the company also collects and sends off its manufacturers’ waste to be upcycled.

Responding on its website to the fact that no local authorities recycle flexible packaging, the website notes: ‘This is something we are looking at coming up with a solution for – not an easy one – so our thinking caps are on!’ It’s a trifle misleading, Lindley acknowledges – the company is not actively engaged in research to develop new technologies nor adapt its current packaging.

In fact the nature of its products – ambient, room-temperature food – mitigates against many kinds of biodegradable plastic. Until innovations of that kind are developed, the pouches will persist... if not proliferate.

Because only if conscientious consumers send them to be upcycled can they be considered the most environmentally friendly option in the UK. And once the world market has been cracked, the upcycling scheme needs not only to be rolled out but also adopted by millions of new consumers in countries that are far less environment-oriented.

Lindley responds: ‘We can’t stop people throwing our pouches away but by promoting our Terracycle programme on pack [from the new year] and encouraging consumers to sign up through our websites and media coverage, more and more people will learn about it. Consumers have the added incentive that for every pouch they send to Terracycle 2p is donated to their chosen charity.’

‘Good in every sense’

The company's brand essence, says Lindley, is that it is ‘good in every sense’, from what it aspires to do for children’s health, through to its environmental and social commitments.

While Ella’s Kitchen is a profit-based business, ‘giving something back’ – as Lindley’s job title suggests – is a core to its mission. She contrasts the company ethos with that of corporate giants with corporate social responsibility (CSR) quotas to fill, who tack on green issues as an afterthought.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that this is not another Green & Black’s, Bodyshop or Innocent waiting to happen: Lindley refuses to rule out the possibility that Ella’s Kitchen may one day be churning out food for Cadbury-Schweppes or Premier Foods, but ‘it’s not on the cards at the moment’.

What are her thoughts on companies that do sell up and how this affects loyal ethical consumers?

‘Our ultimate mission is to get as many children as possible eating healthily, and if that doesn’t change I’m not sure how much difference it makes – it’s often perception rather than reality. It also depends what influence is exerted: if the buyers are fairly hands-off and the company has the same values, maybe it matters less.’

She concedes, however, that it would be difficult to see the brand change under new ownership – ‘particularly when it’s our daughter’s name and face on it.’

Just as cash brings clout, she expects success to enable the company to engage more and alter the habits of its suppliers, in the UK and abroad. It will be easier, she says, not more difficult, to stay green as the business grows, with more resources in terms of staff and money to spend on environmental issues.

‘We are doing a lot more now to get closer to our supply chain, sending questionnaires out to our suppliers, gathering all the information in and trying to work out as closely as we can with them to find out where everything is coming from, what we can do differently and better. We’re working with our distribution company to minimise runs. Being organic all the way through we’re fairly happy with our supply chain in an ethical sense – we know who we’re dealing with in terms of farmers and growers.’

Eifion Rees is the Ecologist's acting Green Living Editor

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