Clif Bar & Co. has become a mainstay in the fitness food sphere, both in name and value. They dominate approximately 33% of the market share for health and lifestyle bars. I encountered many highs and lows in each category of this evaluation. While I appreciate many of the actions taken by Clif regarding sustainability, they still have much work to do. In addition to providing more transparency across their entire supply chain, I encountered several concerning factors such as high sugar content, unsustainable wrappers, and unethical wages for cacao farmers that prevented me from giving them a higher score. To live up to their natural, organic image, Clif still has strides to make regarding the health of their products, the life cycle of their packaging, and the well being of their workers outside of North America.
Clif Bar and Company was founded by Gary Erikson, a cyclist who was determined to design an optimal energy bar that didn’t compromise on taste. The Crunchy Peanut Butter bar has some nutritious ingredients, including organic rolled oats, soy protein, and peanuts. However, Clif has also received significant scrutiny over the amount of added sugar in their products. The Crunchy Peanut Butter Bar has 18 g of added sugar (35% DV). The first ingredient listed is organic brown rice syrup, and the third is organic cane syrup. Clif was even the subject of a lawsuit claiming that their health conscious advertising is deceptive given the actual nutritional content of their products. Although high carbohydrates are natural for an energy bar, excessive sugar can lead to a host of health problems such as obesity, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular issues.
In terms of packaging, Clif has made some strides towards sustainability but still has a ways to go to achieve their targets. The Crunchy Peanut Butter bar, like most of their products, comes packaged in a combination plastic and foil wrapper that preserves freshness. These wrappers are not recyclable through single stream recycling, and in 2019 they ended their partnership with TerraCycle that allowed consumers to mail in wrappers to be melted down and repurposed. Clif has committed to making all their packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025. However, they’re only planning to cut plastic use by 10%, and given the inaccessibility of their discontinued recycling partnership, I’m not confident that these goals are as ambitious as they claim they are. They have taken some promising actions already, such as eliminating 90% of plastic shrink wrap, using 90% Forest Stewardship Council certified paperboard, and designing their wrappers to be 10% smaller. Regardless, there is still a lot to be done, especially regarding the life cycle of their ubiquitous individual wrappers.
76% of Clif’s purchased ingredients are organic. Within the Crunchy Peanut Butter bar, this includes the brown rice syrup, rolled oats, cane syrup, peanut butter, roasted soybeans, soy flour, and oat fiber. I was able to find many instances of Clif Bar’s financial contributions to organic farming programs, but little information about where they source their own ingredients from and exactly what steps they plan to take to reach 100% organic. Despite not being a completely organic company themselves, Clif Bar is the largest private funder of organic research in the United States. However, their personal transparency does not match this ambition, which is especially concerning considering that the standards required to use the word “organic” are gray to begin with.
I consider Clif’s action on renewable energy to be the most impressive component of their sustainability profile by far. They’ve been tracking their emissions since 2003, and claim to have 17 years of climate neutral operations under their belt. Their headquarters and bakeries are powered with 100% renewable energy, much of which is produced onsite. Their California office has a rooftop solar array that provides 80% of the building’s energy needs, and their newly completed Idaho bakery has a five acre system that provides 30% of the factory’s energy. For the energy that cannot be produced onsite, Clif purchases renewable energy certificates and offsets, a claim corroborated by a 2016 Supply Chain Case Study by the EPA. Clif offers financial support for their employees to purchase bikes and electric vehicles through their “Cool Commute” program. Clif’s 50/50 by 2020 initiative aimed to assist 50 of their supply chain providers in converting to at least 50% green energy. They list this statistic as an achievement on their website, but do not provide a list of these suppliers or any explanation of their role in the conversion. Regardless, their commitment to renewable energy and carbon neutral operations remains an impressive feat.
I was originally prepared to give Clif Bar and Company a high rating in this category because of their sustainability track record. However, I came across a statistic in their 2019 “All Aspirations” company report that gave me pause. In the section “The Bittersweet Truth About Chocolate,” the report highlights how many smallholder cacao farmers live under the poverty line. Clif commissioned a study to determine the gap between the living wage and the actual wage for their organic cacao famers in the Dominican Republic, and they subsequently created the “Living Income Cacao” program to provide them with training and financial support. The report states that “By 2030 70% of Clif Bar’s organic cacao farmers will achieve a living income.” I was shocked to read this line in what was otherwise a report jam packed with their achievements. They do claim that 100% of their cocoa is Rainforest Alliance Certified, which includes evaluation of working conditions, housing, and child labor (though a living wage is not listed among these on the Clif website). On one hand, it’s nice to see some transparency from a major food company about a notoriously unethical industry. Their website does state that they prefer to collaborate with their suppliers to improve working conditions rather than just terminating contracts when an ethical issue arises. On the other hand, Clif Bar is worth billions yet still publicly admits that many of their cacao farmers are not earning a living wage, which is totally unacceptable, especially for a company that profits off an image of health and well being. Although the Crunchy Peanut Butter Bar does not contain any chocolate, it is still a product of the same company.