In the footsteps of Alnatura
BY ANJA FAHS
Alnatura is the most popular food brand in Germany, according to a study by Brandmeyer. The company operates nearly 100 stores, has a turnover of 689 million euros, 2,400 employees and is thus the market leader among organic suppliers. And for good reason as Alnatura strives to achieve one thing above all: to express an appreciation for food. Its principle “Making sense for humans and the earth” transcends all areas of the company. We spoke with the founder and CEO Prof. Dr Götz Rehn about his enterprise and his idea of a holistic lifestyle.
Prof. Dr Rehn, how did you come up with the name Alnatura?
Prof. Dr. Götz Rehn : I launched Alnatura over 30 years ago. An intense intellectual and conceptual process preceded the initial founding phase. At that time, I had come to the realisation that a company only has a right to exist if it provides meaningful products for humans and the earth and when its customers and employees can identify with the company’s guiding principle. These thoughts I wanted to emphasise by a corresponding name. And I was inspired by the Italian language. Alnatura is a coinage, which is based on the Italian words for “from nature, for nature”. I wanted to express the holistic, all-embracing nature of my approach and not least an appreciation for food.
Alnatura has experienced rapid growth in recent years. Even numerous discounters have jumped on the organic bandwagon. Does enough respective produce actually exist?
Prof. Dr. G. R.: The benefits of organic farming over agribusiness are undisputed. The more organic foods are in demand, the more healthy agriculture profits and ultimately benefits the people. In this respect, I welcome the fact that more and more foods become available from organic farming. Organic has long since arrived in the middle of society. However, these foods have a share of only about four percent of the total grocery market. It is crucial to increase this proportion many times over, because demand is increasing year after year. But there is far too little “bio” made in Germany. In our domestic market, the conditions for organic farmers are very difficult now. Despite the higher demand, the areas of arable land are growing only minimally, leading to more and more products having to be imported. We therefore recently launched the Alnatura farmers’ initiative with which we assist agriculturalists in converting their farms to organic farming and support them in the long term. We have already won over the first farmers and by 2020 we aim to have changed 3,000 hectares of conventionally cultivated soils into organic.
Do you produce a different organic than the discounters?
Prof. Dr. G. R.: Our products have been in exceptionally strong demand compared to the overall organic market for many years. We consider this positive response not as accidental, but as a result of our high quality work. When I conceived and developed the brand, the question arose as to how the first abstract ideal of “making sense for humans and the earth” could take on a more concrete form. In my opinion, if you want to offer meaningful food, it is only possible with organic. But Alnatura is more than that. We want to bring more meaning to the world. To me this means not only considering the immediate benefit of a food, i.e. its taste, nutritional value or price. It makes sense to also take into account the conditions under which this product is created, the long-term consequences this product has and ultimately what I intend to bring about in people with these products. From insights such as this, I can then derive my actions.
How is this difference in quality manifested?
Prof. Dr. G. R.: We have summarised the seven key action areas that make up our products in our “Bio 7 Initiative”. This label can be found on each Alnatura packet. It stands for topics such as fair partnership, sustainability and, naturally, quality. An example: We use as many raw materials sourced from Demeter, Bioland or Naturland farms as possible. The policies of these farming associations are much more stringent than those of the already demanding organic label. For our customers, for example, it is also important to know what we do in terms of animal welfare. So we have developed our own systematic approach to prevention and control for egg laying hens of our farmers. An external expert controls the farms for us and meticulously checks the hens’ well-being. She recognises from the look and behaviour of the hens whether the farmer has to change something and how.
You rarely speak of “sustainability”…
Prof. Dr. G. R.: This has a historical and even more so a substantive reason. 30 years ago, no one had yet spoken of “sustainability”. In order to make an idea understood, you naturally need apposite images and concepts. For the Alnatura working group, the leitmotif “making sense for humans and the earth” is significant. This motto – for me it is now a picture – expresses everything that sustainability means. That is why I prefer to use the word meaningful or meaningfulness. The original meaning of sustainability among the public and in many companies is being increasingly watered down and even misleadingly abused. Our definition, however, is unmistakable and timeless.
Alnatura has received numerous awards, including the German Sustainability Award. What does this recognition mean to you?
Prof. Dr. G. R.: That is exactly what each of these awards are: a recognition of our thinking and our work. I am pleased about every one of these acknowledgments, because they show us that even people who do not come from our field of work recognise a meaning in what we do. That is exactly why I founded the company. Most importantly to me, however, is the recognition of our customers. Last year an independent representative survey voted us the most popular food brand in Germany.
What does sustainability mean to you personally? What do you do for a sustainable lifestyle?
Prof. Dr. G. R.: Since I have stood for our company principle “making sense for humans and the earth” for more than 30 years now, I can no longer strictly separate my professional and private life at all. In my fridge you’ll find solely organic, usually from Alnatura. Not only because I savour these products but also because I try to put myself in the role of a customer. I test our products very purposefully and often give feedback to our product developers. As far as I can, I go to the office by bike. Yet, for me the most beautiful and CO2-free form of transport is sailing. When sailing, I am connected to the elements, able to enjoy the tranquillity, and return to my office with new ideas every time.
A year ago, you started operation of the world’s largest high-bay warehouse. How could such a technically complex construction be implemented?
Pof. Dr. G. R.: Product demand has become so strong that we had to expand our distribution centre. It is consistent with our own image that we take ecological aspects into consideration for the construction of buildings as well. To use the renewable raw material wood was the obvious choice and the shelf and facade wood used in the construction is PEFC-certified spruce and larch wood from Germany and Austria. Never before has such a large high-bay warehouse been designed and built from natural resources. A total of 5,000 cubic metres of material were processed, the floor area measures 9,000 square metres. This means, we have space for 32,000 pallets. What fascinates me the most, however, is that our distribution centre does not require heating or cooling. We therefore operate carbon neutrally. Our architects achieved this with good insulation and by submerging the racking system 2.50 metres deep into the ground. In the interior we are at the state of the art too, with storage and retrieval of pallets running fully automatically. High-tech and ecology make a good match.
Are there any other projects planned regarding sustainability?
Prof. Dr. G. R.: First, we will expand our organic farmers initiative to continue “to make (good) ground” which quite literally is the motto of this initiative. Secondly, our online shop was launched in April. Now customers from Germany and Austria can buy 850 products conveniently from home. We still have many projects in the pipeline, which we will communicate in due course.
Where in the world would you like to see a better understanding of sustainability? What needs to change for us in the future?
Prof. Dr. G. R.: Knowledge about what we need to change is available globally. We know that we cannot treat the earth as if it were an inexhaustible resource, that we hurt the soil and water unnecessarily by using pesticides. And we know that the predominant economic models have no future because they represent a conception of man and the world, in which humans are ruled by the economy and not the other way around. Despite this knowledge many people are not acting on it yet. It takes, in my opinion, a sharper focus on the question of why I am doing something and the consequences of that action. Only from this consciousness can new action arise. If you asked our staff why they are committed to organic food, most would probably answer that they want to do something meaningful. With Alnatura we try to contribute an approach in which man is the measure of all things and in which we conceive the earth as a living organism and respectfully take care of it accordingly.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue Q2 2015. Picture credit: © Alexander Heimann