Will Americans Ever Become Ethical Buyers? This State Is Betting on It
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the last frontier has a tradition of self-reliance and environmental stewardship.
By Nick Fouriezos
Nestled among the remote, mountainous islands surrounding Juneau, Lia Heifetz and Matt Kern have created a “coast-to-kitchen” company called Barnacle Foods that creates pickles and salsa blends out of Alaskan kelp. And from the waters of Silver Bay in remote Sitka, Northline Seafoods plans to launch a mobile fish-freezing barge intended to restore profits to local fisheries while upending a corporatizing industry where quality becomes a race to the bottom.
These two companies are far from the only ones entering the conversation around ethical consumerism, broadly defined as goods and services that appeal to our better natures. What makes them different, though, is that they’re betting they can do so from Alaska, despite the logistical and financial challenges of the last frontier. The goal: Provide quality products that give back to local economies and follow environmentally sustainable practices. That business equation has yet to be proven on this side of the world, but companies are hopeful the state’s narrative will have a major appeal to consumers. “There’s a long history of harvesting a bounty, sharing it, living off it,” says Heifetz. “It’s the heartbeat of many of our [Alaskan] cultures.”
Alaska’s story is that it hasn’t been spoiled by corporate interests in the minds of consumers.
Glenn Rudberg, Ethos
The state has encouraged such endeavors, especially as lower-than-expected oil returns have left the economy in a lurch. That was part of the calculus earlier this month when Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, shot a promotional video while visiting Barnacle Foods, high praise considering it’s a one-year-old company that only recently started selling its wares. “As we deal with our fiscal situation, our big goal we have is to diversify our economy and to do something like what you’re doing,” Walker told Kern on camera. In June, the Alaska Division of Agriculture launched a challenge for locals to spend $5 a week on home-grown products, with forecasts saying that if everyone participated, it would have a $188 million economic impact.
To be clear, companies like these aren’t looking to sell just to Alaskans. With 556,000 adults in the state, the sustainability market is expected to hit only $6.1 million by 2020, according to the Natural Marketing Institute. Rather, these startups believe they can capitalize on their state’s unique narrative to win the real prize: a place in the global market, which the institute projects will grow from $200 million in 2005 to breach $1.5 billion by 2020. “Alaska’s story is that it hasn’t been spoiled by corporate interests in the minds of consumers,” says Glenn Rudberg, head of brand strategy at Ethos, a marketing agency catering to the sustainability market.
Rudberg notes that consumer interest has shifted from wanting “natural” to “organic” to “local.” The newest trend? “Wild.” And in that space, distant places like Alaska might flourish, advertising wild salmon in the same way that Maine has built interest around its wild blueberries. “America is getting tired of brands that are messing with their food,” Rudberg says. “Consumers want that story: this wild salmon, brought to you by this fisherman, who has a story and is fishing the waters in a sustainable way.”
While some businesses make their moral claim by finding a market for an underutilized crop, such as kelp, others want to instill progressive values to old-fashioned industries. That’s the aim of Northline Seafoods, led by Pat Glaab and Ben Blakey. The pair are spending $2 million to retrofit a former helicopter logging barge as a traveling fish-freezing unit. The current model is as follows: Fishermen in places like Bristol Bay pass their catch off to a tender, which then transports its cargo to onshore fish-processing plants, where the fish is mixed with catches from countless others.
That creates no accountability for the freshness or quality of the fish, Glaab says, which can take days to reach the processor. But Northline’s barge would allow fish to be frozen almost instantly after being caught, then sent elsewhere for processing. What’s more, Glaab and Blakey plan to give their employees individual berths and pay significantly above the minimum wage. “It’s a radical departure from the incumbents in seafood processing,” says Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, the state representative from Sitka.
Establishing a working business model in Alaska isn’t easy. In some ways, the state serves as a better launching pad than as a long-term home. Tidal Vision, a company that purchases byproducts from sustainably sourced Alaskan fisheries and turns them into wallets, belts, sheets and clothing, was started by a pair of Juneau entrepreneurs in 2015. But as the manufacturing company has grown, it’s shifted almost all of its operations to Washington State. “Just the economics of it, we couldn’t survive it,” says 26-year-old co-founder Craig Kasberg.
The company has flourished since, growing to 12 full-timers capable of processing more than 1,000 pounds of crab shells each day while working with more than 1,000 distributors, including Wal-Mart. The similarly ethically minded Wild Woman Fishing Company, started by Colorado poet Lacie Richardson, focuses on salmon caught by line fishing — a smaller-scale but more sustainable process than net fishing — but sells its catch out of Colorado Springs.
The Alaskan brand isn’t a problem, but at times its geography can be. The folks at Tidal Vision found that advertisements stressing the Alaska connection performed worse than those that simply plucked sustainability heartstrings. Barnacle Foods was originally called Wild Alaskan Kelp Company, but the name was changed after internal debates. “Alaska is synonymous with this quality environment that requires stewardship,” Heifetz says. But, also, “Alaska is very far away from a lot of places.” If Alaska’s do-gooder companies want to thrive, they’ll have to close that distance in the minds of their customers.