For the second Green portrait in collaboration with Amsterdam Capital House, we've had the pleasure to talk to Brad, the founder of plant-based cheese brand Willicroft. They combine age-old techniques with a more planet-friendly ingredient base. With their strong and honorable values, Willicroft is on a noble mission to change people's minds about vegan cheese and create awareness around environmental issues. Scroll down to read all about Brad's journey and vision below!
Why did you start your company & what do you want to accomplish?
It was a bit of a happy accident; I definitely didn't wake up in the morning and thought to start a plant-based cheese company. I think it is like for many people to solve a problem in my own life. I couldn't find good plant-based cheese products at the supermarket, so I started experimenting at home. My grandparents were dairy farmers, so I had a sort of good base to start from, and so I was doing it as a hobby for about six months, then one evening some friends came over and convinced me to quit my job, and this once I listened to them, and that was the start of it. The first moment was the first market; that's when I knew it could be something because then there are strangers giving you feedback, and that's what gave me the energy.
I think we want to measure our success not based on what we do but also on the things we affect. If someone said to me, tomorrow, you could have two options, Willicroft could be the most successful plant-based cheese company in the world. Yet, the planet's going to go to shit, or we can help fix broader climatic issues, but Willicroft is not going to be around in 10 years' time - I would pick that option, honestly. Those are my goals to fix the climate crisis, and I think we can play a significant role in that, but it is not about Willicroft doing that; It's about us as a collective fixing it.
What does sustainability mean to you? → How does it come across in your business?
Sustainability means not taking more than what is there; don't go beyond the natural resources because eventually, that will come back to bite you. Living within planarity boundaries is how I see sustainability.
This is something we are still working on. I think it starts with data. When you know your emissions and your inverts and outserts, then you can approve upon them. At the end of this year, we were going to have all of our emissions on our packaging, which will be a nice step forwards since we'll be the second plant-based cheese company to have that in Europe to have that. From there we can tackle other area's within our company, but it's something that's always on our minds.
What did you have to overcome to get to where you are now?
Perseverance is probably the biggest thing. I don't want to say that our experiences have been any harder than anyone else's. We've had it pretty good and wherein a great city and were surrounded by great people, but I think the biggest thing is people's perceptions, probably. The perception of plant-based cheese is very low and were trying to change that. The biggest thing is that people think cheese has to be a certain way, so they refuse to understand or believe it can be any different. And maybe some of the initial stuff that was on the market left people with a bad impression, people think of 90's vegan food, but thankfully that is all changing pretty quickly. Then there is the dairy industry, especially the big dairy farmers, it's crazy how singleminded they are, but thankfully people are seeing through this. You can't get away with that kind of stuff anymore. The reactions to Amendment 171 are giving us huge faith that this is just a wounded animal that is flailing away, embarrassing itself, and losing all credibility in the process. It's a challenge, but I think common sense will prevail in the end.
What is your mindset when it comes to growing your business? What drives you?
I think it is essential to first build a strong foundation. It can be a difficult thing to merge growth and sustainability and caring about the planet because the reality is that most development will probably harm the planet in some way. So, we've tried to set a solid foundation and make sure that we are doing things the right way; that's why we will implement emission data on our packages and decide to go from cashews onto beans. We were trying to find a balance there.
In terms of how it manifests, I think one of my strong traits is to have a clear vision and not get too caught up in the things around it, to stay true to that vision. And of course, it will take some time before we reach that goal, but I think we are on the right path. I keep a little diary, and over the last three years, it's so nice to see back to what I was doing 1-2 years ago, and then you really see the progress and see how close you are to that vision.
What advice would you give entrepreneurs who want to build a sustainable business?
Always be looking to learn. The minute you stop learning is a dangerous moment, and what we've just talked about; to focus on small steps to get things going. The final important piece of advice is to measure the impact from the start because the message can get diluted otherwise. I often see brands with amazing intentions at the start, but they don't formalize them and get lost in other things. If you set these things up from the beginning, it's incorporated into the whole business and, therefore, something people are much more likely to believe in. Embody your values, and don't try to bite off more than you can chew; it's better to focus on one or two things.
Tell us about your green vision for your industry? → What is your green vision for the world (macro-level)?
The food industry's biggest changing point would happen when we actually put a price on carbon, animal welfare, and things that are causing a lot of havoc in the industry. We, unfortunately, live in a capitalist world, so we need to set capitalist requirements to regulate the things that are causing the most harm.
My holistic vision for the world would be to live in planetary boundaries, thinking about the greater good rather than the individual's good. I think we got lost somewhere in the last 300 years in terms of the enlightenment era and the rise of egotism. We need to remember we used to come from small tribes, where it was all about the collective, and we understood everything that surrounded the tribe and the greater kind of ecosystem at play. And of course, it is hard to go back to that kind of setting, but I think a better understanding that what we have now is in our grasp, and if we don't decide to take that path, there is only one winner, and that's the planet, and it will live happily without us.
During Earth Day this year, Willicroft has launched a campaign to encourage other companies to join them in making Mother Nature their CEO. To cement this commitment, Willicroft has outlined 3 goals a company needs to achieve to ensure we're embodying these virtues and creating a more equitable planet. The full details of the campaign can be found here.
This interview was made in collaboration with Amsterdam Capital House.
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