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Top yogurt producer moves into plant-based dairy products — while still being the big cheese: 'It's the ability to flex'

"It doesn't impact the quality — it doesn't impact the taste."

"It doesn’t impact the quality — it doesn’t impact the taste."

Photo Credit: Danone

The biggest flex for food brands might just be "flexing" — switching between animal and plant-based products, that is.

That's because consumers want choice — "flexitarianism" is on the rise, while stricter diets like veganism are still a very small portion of the population. And even a slight food flex can make a big difference. With everything involved in beef production, eating just one fewer burger each week over the course of a year can remove as much pollution as taking a car off the road for 320 miles, according to EarthDay.org.

Dairy-free milk and yogurt alternatives are a fast-growing category, including for Danone, the legacy multinational corporation known for — among other brands — Activia, Evian, Silk, and peak childhood nostalgia brand, Danimals. In fact, the world's No. 1 fresh dairy products company has also become the No. 1 plant-based food company in the world. 

In an exclusive interview with The Cool Down, Melanie Chow, Vice President of Mission and Sustainability for Danone, talked about the growing consumer demand for non-dairy products, using leftover fruit to create yogurt, and connecting profit with purpose. 

📍 The strategy is optionality

Rather than dairy and plant-based products being at odds, Chow told TCD they are "huge complements of each other." 

"If you look at the research and you look at what consumers are asking for, it's the ability to flex across dairy and plant-based based off of their needs," she said. "Maybe someone in their family might be lactose intolerant — maybe they prefer the taste of plant-based versus dairy for one type of functional lean protein.

"The ability to provide both of those products at scale — sustainably sourced, sustainably made, healthy, and nutritious — is a way that we as a company can continue to evolve with changing consumer demands and make sure that … when they do have a certain need, there's a product available on-shelf for them." 

In order to provide optionality to customers, Danone is ramping up plant-based production — it recently converted a dairy yogurt factory to produce oat milk instead. 

🍓 Who rescued who? Fruit edition

"We have a mission to bring healthy food to as many people as possible," Chow told TCD. "So that means providing healthier and tastier food and making sure that the way that we are making that food is sustainable."

And while cow's milk emits around three times as much greenhouse gas pollution as plant-based alternatives, there are still ways to make products like yogurt more sustainable.

There's Danone's Two Good yogurt, for example, which is a low-sugar alternative in a surprisingly high-sugar market. Chow explains that for Two Good: "We actually use rescued fruit in the yogurt itself … Rather than using fruit fresh from scratch, we're actually taking fruit that would have otherwise been wasted in the normal supply chain. It doesn't impact the quality — it doesn't impact the taste.

"It's a way for us to save fruit that would have otherwise gone to waste."

🏁 Making money through sustainability 

Danone has been around for over 100 years, and it's learned a thing or two about how to drive impact at scale — whether for plant-based products or a good old-fashioned glass of milk.

"Danone has a long history of a dual mission," Chow explained. "We're very unique as a company in the sense that over 50 years ago our then-CEO really tied mission and purpose with commercial performance."

That was former CEO Antoine Riboud, whose landmark "Marseilles Speech" defines Danone's purpose in the modern world: "Corporate responsibility does not end at the factory gate or the office door."

"Every decision we're making," Chow continued, "whether it's product innovation, how we market to our consumer base — looks at this double lens of both business performance and impact. So the impact can be seen through health and nutrition … or it can be seen through sustainability … But it means that through decision making and the fact that we're a B Corp, we actually do keep both of these tenets core."

To bring it full circle, Chow referenced something Danone's current CEO says often: "Sustainability without business performance has no impact. And business performance without impact has no future."

📦 The total package

Plant-based dairy is just one element of Danone's impact journey. Every product needs a container, and not everyone is willing to wash out their roommate's empty yogurt containers.

Danone has a handful of major priorities when it comes to packaging. Step one: Ensuring all products are 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2030.

"Another one of our key priorities is to actually really support the recycling infrastructure of the world that we live in," said Chow, referring to the fact that, by some estimates, less than 5% of plastics end up getting recycled. "At the end of the day, we can only focus on our products, right? … But it's really critical for us to drive partnerships more broadly and ensure that we are finding ways to make products more recyclable.

"We're building out the infrastructure … city by city, state by state [including partnerships with the National Recycling Coalition and the Circular Action Alliance]. And so we're playing a role on all sides of … the table in terms of really driving circularity as much as we can."

🔮A glance into the crystal ball

"I don't think you can think about the future of a food and beverage company without sustainability," Chow told TCD. "It is core to how we are able to meet the needs of our consumers."

It's also about resilience, Chow said. "It's about the future of what our consumers eat and making sure that we're providing them with the healthiest and best and most sustainable ingredients that we can provide.

"We know consumers are interested. It is something that they're leaning into."

🏆 Favorite product?

Activia smoothies. "I don't need a spoon."

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