By Jeramy Pritchett

When the coconut water craze hit a few years ago, I decided to try it out and see if what they were saying was true. Does coconut water really help with dehydration? Is it better than drinking a lot of water or sports drinks? I’m no expert by any means, but what I found was that after a grueling day on the bike when I would usually end up dehydrated with a headache, I felt great. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the taste. So, one day at Whole Foods I found Harmless Harvest’s Raw Coconut Water and I have been hooked ever since. It tastes amazing and is great for you. Then I researched them online and found the usual missing ingredient in products I like. They actually give a damn about the workers and area that the coconut water comes from. They have a mission that is worth exploring.

BFM: Why coconut water?
We had been talking for a few years about progressive business models and finally decided to stop talking and start doing. We both quit our corporate jobs and started Harmless Harvest in 2009. We set out to create a business that brought our commitment to positive consumerism and natural capitalism to life. With our ecosystem-based business model, we care about the long-term welfare of all the stakeholders in our company, from plant to shelf. This means that by focusing on the benefit or payoff of others (soil, farmer, consumer) you obtain a good or service that outcompetes conventional business (maximizing your company’s return). In a sense it’s practical application of selfish altruism. With this in mind we looked, first and foremost, at food categories. We needed an ultra competitive, high-growth category with little innovation in manufacturing resulting in a pretty bland offering across the market. We also needed a ‘sole ingredient’ focused industry where sourcing and processing approaches would definitely impact the final product’s quality in a substantial, sensorial way.

The coconut water industry appeared to be a prime contender to demonstrate this concept. By focusing on the payoff for the customer (taste, nutrition, ethics) we were obliged to develop a supply chain from scratch and source raw materials from operations whose crop was superior. Fortunately, these crops come from sustainable small-scale rural operations. The result of this was an outstanding product that outcompetes conventional approaches in the category.
So far, this process has taught us about stepping from theory into reality. As the first company to offer a 100 percent Raw & Organic Coconut Water in 2011, we started to  see if putting our resources into the making, rather than marketing, of our beverage would work out. So far, the response has been overwhelming.

Photo by Kristen Grundy / Harmless Harvest founders Justin Guilbert & Douglas Riboud

BFM: For those who have not visited your website, please explain what constructive capitalism is?

Constructive capitalism, as opposed to destructive capitalism, is the notion that market-based economies can improve the condition or welfare of all the stakeholders in the supply chain of the good or service being produced. For better or worse, we currently exist in a highly developed and high intensity consumer culture rooted in the astounding power of capitalism and market economy. The thought goes that there is no reason for that power to have detrimental effects on one stakeholder for the benefit of the other, quite the contrary. Business is not a zero sum game. It can be a catalyst. We can no longer ignore the consequences of near-sighted, perhaps overly optimistic, economic development. The explosion of our economies in the past 50 years have come with a cost which are beginning to perceive, from major health issues, increased gaps in poverty and of course the deep impact on our only resource: our planet.

For anyone considering a business career today, there is no other choice than to take this relevant information into account and pursue experiences that will integrate the well being of all the agents in a business model, from soil to consumer. That is the broad idea of constructive capitalism: better try to improve upon our current platform, even if it most probably will fail, in order to join the forces of positive change, than persist in replicating a model that is now understood to be detrimental to our well-being and whose long-term costs may far outweigh the short-term gains in prosperity we have enjoyed in the past decades.


Photo by Kristen Grundy / Harmless Harvest founders Justin Guilbert & Douglas Riboud

BFM: Explain how high-pressure processing works? And what products that are produced in the U.S. do you think could benefit this process?

High Pressure Processing, or HPP, is an FDA-approved technique that has been used for decades with various products. This technique utilizes heatless isostatic pressure to inhibit the growth of natural microflora, such as probiotic lactobacilli and to kill aerobic pathogens. Bottled products are placed in a water bath and submitted to tens of thousands of pounds pressure, dispersed evenly throughout the cells of the cold water and products. HPP allows for an extended refrigerated shelf life, while maintaining the flavor, aroma and nutrition of the raw product.

There are incredible opportunities for HPP with products in the U.S., although it is not an easy or inexpensive route for a company to choose.

We believe our role, as a “start-up,” is to demonstrate the economic viability of these types of innovations that, in turn, might prove to be essentially better for the consumer from an organoleptic or nutritional standpoint. If this case is made, which it appears to be, many will follow. For the time being it is up-starts trying to ride ‘the wave,’ but as critical mass is reached, the organizations that feed most of us will need to explore this technology to stay resilient. Perhaps the marginal result will be better tasting, healthier food dependent on less processed ingredients. And a less processed ingredient means an ingredient that needs to hold its own without the help of industrial food processing. That usually means a better-sourced ingredient. At least, we hope so.

In terms of possible applications, nothing is out of reach. The challenge is, of course, for entrepreneurs to understand that this is not a one-stop-shop technology and that it has its limits. These limits need to be understood in conjunction with our knowledge of food safety. In simpler terms, HPP is not a miracle technology, it’s been around for centuries, it is an interesting process that can help us improve the quality of what we eat and drink.

BFM: Why do you provide your customers with so much information about how your products are made?

This question is rhetorical by nature. Why not? If it is out of fear of competition or trade secret then we open the door to hiding what we do from the people that trust us to put food in our bodies. If there is one industry which should play with an open book it is food & beverage. We know that our open stance has triggered a lot of me-too companies to mimic our product. While it is sometimes frustrating for us to see this, the bottom line keeps us encouraged: we are not trying to be champions, individual winners or satisfy our ego as an individual, brand or company, we are trying to improve the system we live in. The more impact we have, directly or not, the better.

Another reason for our exhaustive approach to providing customers with content is to try to go against the “dumbing down” logic of marketing. Mantras and acronyms such as K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid) are pretty irrelevant in a world that offers unlimited access to information. If it isn’t simple, don’t try to present it that way. If it takes a little commitment from the reader to understand, how is that a negative? Making good food is hard and people should value that. To value that, they need to have access to the information. Preserving customers from the pains of knowledge is the type of arrogant attitude that leads the way to misleading, misinforming and taking advantage of the asymmetry between those who make and those who buy. We hope a level playing field will help improve the products and services our market offers.

BFM: For someone looking to start a sustainable food product, what should they know before getting started?

Nothing much other than humility and resilience. Regardless of the perceived commercial success or praise, there will be a lot of pain. Fortunately, this pain is the consequence of friction with the status quo. Individuals seeking to start on this route should do it for the larger audience they belong to, or they will have trouble justifying the personal cost of this type of endeavor related to the personal benefit, even if monetary. The silver lining comes through the outstanding personal development that this route offers. We only have one life and it is quite short. Starting a project focused on environmental and social progress at its core is a powerful way to contribute and benefit from it.

BFM: Tell us about some of the other products that you have coming out and where we can get them?

We’re eager to capitalize on our growing knowledge of coconut water to develop interesting formulas adding exciting raw materials such as our cinnamon and clove project last year. The other truly inspiring project is NAMACHA (Nama – Raw, Cha – Tea), our cold-brewed, raw tealeaf initiative. Surprisingly energizing with a novel and very appealing flavor, it feels like a reinvention of tea. It also is a direct support for organic farming in a highly industrialized country: Japan.

BFM: You’re sitting around a campfire and having discussion. Who is there and what are you talking about?

Grown-ups, old folks, kids of all ages and backgrounds sharing their mundane and wonderful experiences in living. There is so much to learn from the diversity of people we rarely reach out and sit down to talk with.

BFM: What sort of culture are you building with Harmless Harvest and who are some of the people that inspire you on a day-to-day basis?

The culture of this company will be the product of the commitment and ethics of all who participate. We try our hardest to build a team who shares a fundamental belief that consumerism can be harnessed for positive impacts and a true calling toward action-oriented processes. Defining a cultural identity for this company would limit our ability to innovate and develop. We all hopefully share a vision for better food for all from better sources now. Essentially, we have no style, no signature look, no ideology and pass little judgment. Corporate culture is of little importance as a willful design from the founders. It is a result of maturing organization and the minds that thrive in it. Let’s talk again in a few years and see what it looks like. Most of the people who inspire us tend to have stuck to some core ideas and spent a lifetime exploring them for little reward other than a personal contribution to society. A sample of publicly recognized characters would be Baruch Spinoza, Arne Naess and Jacques Yves Cousteau (for Justin) and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman for Douglas. Michael Jackson or Prince and why?

Let’s refresh it to Tupac or Biggie. We’re still on the fence on that, although Pac’s following lyric seems pretty relevant for this Q&A:

‘Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live, and let’s change the way we tray each other. You see the old way wasn’t working, so it’s on us to do what we gotta do to survive.’