Snacking Sustainably with GoodSAM CEO, Heather K. Terry

By Susan Fecko Susan Fecko has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
Published on May 10, 2023

Heather K. Terry is the Founder & CEO of GoodSAM PBC, a certified B-Corp. On a mission to create sustainable snacks and overhaul the food industry through regenerative agriculture, we sat down with the GoodSAM CEO for more about her mission and the evolution of sustainability in the snack space.

You’re passionate about sustainability, so how does GoodSAM work with farmers to create a positive impact in those undervalued communities? 

I think one of the most interesting things we do is working directly with the communities. So, they are constantly in contact with us, and they know what we are doing in our business model. One really interesting part of the company is how we’ve democratized sitting around the table with our farmers.

You know, I think most of the world really believes that farmers are in servitude to us, and we don’t think about them very much. We don’t always give them the credit they deserve and as a society we certainly don’t pay them the right amount of money so I think what’s really interesting that we at GoodSAM have been able to do is that instead of buying into things like Fair Trade or 1% for the Planet, not that any of these things are bad things – they are wonderful things – but when you can access communities and directly, positively impact communities it is always better to do it with them directly.

So, what we’ve done is as we’ve worked with communities – our cocoa farmers, coffee, macadamia nuts, whatever it is – we’ve been able to kind of see what’s happening in the supply network. We’ve been able to say “Oh, hey, guys. We think that this is what’s going on and this is how we can really improve the livelihood of the community or give us better outcomes” and they’ll give their opinion. We work really, really closely to figure out which projects we want to put capital into and resources. I think that’s something not a lot of companies do – we certainly haven’t encountered too many. I think that’s one of our biggest differentiators.

A hangup with sustainable brands can be finding partners whose values align with their own. How does GoodSAM navigate the challenges to vet like-minded partners?

This is a great question. This is at the crux of everything we do at GoodSAM. We are vertically integrated in a lot of countries, and we have a lot of partners who, you know, are co-manufacturers, shippers, trucking companies, etc. Some of these companies do business with people who aren’t like-minded but I think it’s really interesting about most of our network is you have a bunch of people who are really, really bought into our GoodSAM model and they are genuinely excited about the way that we operate in the world and the outcomes.

So even if their entire business model isn’t entirely in the sustainability space or it isn’t in the impact world, we are seeing a lot of supply networks move toward those outcomes and move toward those ESG goals. It’s exciting to see, especially really young teams, get involved and start pushing the old guard. We see this across the supply network, specifically with co-manufacturers, where you’ve got a new guard coming in and saying yeah, this is really important. They want to play in the space and grow in the space, so they know they need to work with GoodSAM. I think that’s really cool to watch.

Certainly we’ve had some partners who haven’t worked out, those who maybe said they wanted to be here and didn’t fully demonstrate an action that we were looking for – whether it be from a fairness perspective or the way they treated the supply network or align with how we do business. If they were secretive or dishonest, we cut those immediately out of the network because it is really, really important that we have that trust and that faith in our partners.

Walk me through the process for new products – how are you deciding what’s next and how to make that product as sustainable and healthy as possible?

Everything in our GoodSAM portfolio is regenerative so we are working solely in those regenerative systems directly with farmers. So new products are really dictated by what is in the supply network and we really don’t go outside of that network. Sometimes we’ll be asked to go into a different vertical or a different country and we’ve put a bit of a pause on that now.

I think in the early days we were much more eager and able to do that but with limited resources as a start up you need to be really, really intentional and careful about how you spend both your time and your money. So a lot of the products and the new innovations that we are debuting in the next year or so are things that are already in the supply network or iterations on existing products in the supply network, which is also a really cool practice as a founder and getting to work with my team on those things is a lot of fun.

As the conversation around climate change progresses, how has your vision for GoodSAM evolved? How has the mission grown and changed?

I think that the mission has always been to partner with small farmers in indigenous communities in these solely regenerative systems to preserve, protect, and grow those systems. That’s really at the crux of everything we do.

I think one of the biggest topics for us that has changed, particularly in the last year, is climate migration. It’s something that we are thinking about deeply in our supply network. We work around the equator very aggressively and while we are seeing climate change everywhere the equator is really where we’re seeing climate change at an alarming rate and we have communities that will just be washed out, droughted out, all kinds of things. 

Then there are communities that will be fine because they have more resilient crops or they happen to be in a particular area that is less touched by climate. So I think that’s one big concern, climate migration, and it comes down to what to we do with these farmers and communities who have been protecting the earth for a very long time and, of course, are farming a subset of products that really only come from a couple parts of the world that are commodities that we utilizes and love and typically take for granted. 

On the flip side, as it relates to climate, obviously how we measure climate like carbon inputs and things like that, trying to become aware and measured in our response to how climate is coming through the narrative and where we see the opportunity or where we see means for improvement.

What does it mean to you, as a person, that your company is a B Corp?

It means a lot, to be honest with you. We scored 113.5 B Corp points when it takes 80 to become a registered B Corp. For a company that is really only three years old, that is a really big accomplishment. Most of our points are in community development and centered around this model of equitable outcomes for everyone in the supply network.

It’s a huge badge of honor because dealing with B Corp and scoring high as a B Corp is prestigious in itself and we’ve done that work. It reinforces what you do as a business owner and as a team. Even for our GoodSAM employees it reinforces what they do on a daily basis and shows that we put in the work to verify what it is that we are doing on the ground. So it’s a real great sense of pride for me and everybody within our company.

What does it mean for you as an entrepreneur who has to consider costs, branding, marketing and all the rest?

Yeah, I mean it’s a real pain in the ass to be honest with you. I wish we could just go out and create a real, equitable world and leave the rest of it to being easy. Unfortunately, that’s not the case and when you tie things like regenerative and direct to the outcome – meaning the outcome for us as a business both financially and the outcomes of our farmers – that’s becoming a really compelling case for the business model.

Of course, branding and marketing, we’ve tried a lot of different things and we keep trying to innovate new ways to get to the customer in a way that they care. I think in the U.S. we’re very narcissistic in a way – we really want to know what a product does for us first and we don’t necessarily lead with climate outcomes and people outcomes which is unfortunate, but I think it’s something we need to be aware of as a brand.

If we’re going to do the work that we do we need to make those sales so that piece is always complex when doing this type of work so if you don’t pay attention to those numbers then you’re going to go under. It’s really about striking that balance.

Snack foods are widely popular but generally are unhealthy (I personally can’t have any sort of chips in my house, lest I devour the entire bag in a single sitting). How do you go about making a healthy snack food that people will buy and enjoy?

This is a great question and we always talk about how we take the best of what consumers buy and we make it even better.

At GoodSAM we make chocolate bars. Our panela line is 70% so it’s low sugar then our allulose line is no sugar so that’s in our chocolate portfolio. Then we deal with a lot of commodities that are relatively healthy like nuts, fruit seeds, oils, and coffee. All of these things have a place in a diet and I think we do a nice job of bringing the best option and the best-tasting option to the shelf.

I don’t put out a product unless I think it tastes great so that’s something I think really sets us apart. I think a lot of founders and owners fall in love with their own idea and, unfortunately, that’s not always what sells on the shelf. So we’re constantly iterating, watching data, and figuring out what is going to be the thing that people in the market really want. That’s always something to consider and, honestly, if it doesn’t taste good then it isn’t something that belongs in our portfolio.

It is shocking how much food costs and how little of that goes to farmers. How do you, as an entrepreneur in the CPG space, give farmers a better deal?

Direct trade models are really, really helpful. Middlemen take a lot of money out of the farmers’ pockets – they hedge bets, they hedge up against the commodities market, and they push farmers down. This happens especially in markets where there is surplus, as this gives farmers very little leverage.

I think more companies that can go direct and do this type of work where they start to treat farmers equally. Farmers aren’t in servitude to us; they are running a business and that’s something we as a society forget a lot. In the US and overseas, we are dealing with people who could leave at any time, and we’d be screwed – there goes your chocolate, there goes your coffee – and that’s a very real possibility.

In places like Colombia we see this at an alarming rate, people who have been in the countryside for a very long time just can’t make ends m eet anymore so they end up in the cities. This isn’t a better outcome, to be honest, often this is met with a lot of adversity and difficulty for them but there’s a perceived value to the cash that they can make in the cities versus what they can make farming. So this is something businesses have to think about because protecting your supply network needs to be a priority in all ways – in a people perspective and in a planetary perspective.

Chocolate is universally popular, yet the cocoa industry is notorious for relying on child labor. You were a co-founder of NibMor Chocolate. What are the challenges to ethically sourced cocoa for making chocolate?

Great question! So this is something that I’m passionate about so I want to talk about it in two parts.

Especially in Africa, there’s a lot of slave labor. I’m very careful and intentional about not calling it “modern slave labor” because slave labor is slave labor. That’s one thing that is an important distinction – being a slave is being a slave, being human trafficked is being human trafficked, being a child and treated as currency for work is a human crime. It’s something that should not be tolerated.

I think it’s really unfortunate that the big dogs, like Nestle, Mars, Cargill, and more in the early 2000s promised that they were going to handle this by the year 2025 and they were going to eradicate this type of slave labor in the chocolate supply chain. Nothing has changed, which is really disappointing and really the work of good lobbyists, I think. 

So, I’ve never sourced chocolate in Africa and West Africa – Ivory Coast and Ghana are the two largest producers – and I’ve never done that at NibMor or with GoodSAM. I’ve also encouraged others to stay away from that supply network because if you don’t have transparency and full visibility it can be very difficult. Recently there have been some developments in Ghana and I think there is a possibility for us to work there in a fully traceable supply network, which could be really interesting for us so we are exploring that. You have to be very careful and very intentional and very clear with what it is you need people to do in order to verify that structure.

On the flip side, another thing I want to touch on is mass balance, especially in the sustainability space. A lot of chocolate bars are labeled mass balance and you’ll notice it more and more so really pay attention to that “mass balance” on a label of chocolate.

There’s a lot of really popular brands out there using mass balance. What mass balance means is that at the factory or your partners that you are working with in the field purchase both Fair Trade certified and non-Fair Trade certified beans and they mix those beans together in a factory. Then the brands who say, “Yes, we want Fair Trade” are able to put that Fair Trade label on their product and get credit for that even though they cannot guarantee that the chocolate bar that you are purchasing is fully Fair Trade.

I think this is a really big green wash loophole in traceability and one that warrants a light to be shone on it, in addition to the slave labor pieces. These are the things that green wash stuff that get farmers lower prices and there’s a lot of suffering because of that. What happens in those mass balance supply networks is that brands benefit from that with a lower price on Fair Trade, as do the co-manufacturers who are processing those beans.

It’s really something to look out for and it’s something I think consumers need to be aware of because I think that most people I talk to who understand Fair Trade and the value of it get really heated when I tell them the reality of that situation. They realize it’s a lie, it’s deceptive, they don’t feel good about it. Mass balance is not being truly ethical and it’s not being completely transparent. I think it’s something we need to be talking about more. 

By Susan Fecko Susan Fecko has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team

Susan Fecko is a Columnist at Grit Daily.

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