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  1. The Weekend Report
19 August 2023

The original woke capitalists

Innocent is a purveyor of friendliness, social concern and smoothies. Are its ethics for real?

By Will Dunn

The port of Rotterdam is one of the few places in Europe where the true scale of the petrochemical industry can be glimpsed. Until the mid-2000s the continent’s largest industrial area handled more cargo per year than anywhere else in the world, the largest component of which is a hundred million tonnes of crude oil. For miles the road through the Europoort is flanked by a forest of distillation columns, flames belching in the distance, storage tanks the size of tower blocks standing in row upon row. And there at the end, a gate topped by a cheery pink hallo. Beyond it, in stark relief against the grey expanse of tarmac, sea and sky, a building clad with bright rectangles of green, pink and yellow.

This building – known as the Blender – is one of the first carbon-neutral factories in the world, and the first factory to be certified as having a positive effect on the health and well-being of the people who work in it. It exemplifies the values of its owner, Innocent, the chilled smoothie and fruit juice brand. Innocent’s values have long been worn on the company’s hand-knitted sleeve: the name, the logo (a hand-drawn face beneath a halo) and the cuddly language used on every label present a commitment to simple goodness.

Innocent is also the archetype of that strain of chummy British aspiration that bloomed under Tony and Dave: its founders were three friends from Cambridge, who tired of their jobs in advertising and consultancy, and in 1998 took a few crates of smoothies they’d made in their west London kitchen to a music festival. The same year, Starbucks arrived in the UK, and the markets for cappucinos and smoothies grew together – within the company there’s a tenet that an Innocent smoothie should be available “wherever you find a posh coffee”.

By 2000 Innocent smoothies were stocked in Waitrose. By 2003 the company had its own music festival, vans dressed up as cows, and an office, Fruit Towers, carpeted with artificial grass. Innocent pioneered “wackaging”, covering every bottle with jokey, chatty copy: underneath bottles are messages that say, “Stop looking at my bottom” or, “Squeezed to meet you.” For consumers in the UK there was something agreeably British in the brand’s commitment to unseriousness. When I arrived in Rotterdam they gave me a pair of socks that say, “If you were a bus, we’d run for you.”

Innocent was also an early exponent of ethical capitalism, creating a charitable foundation to which it gives 10 per cent of its profits, running campaigns such as the Big Knit, which encourages people to knit small woolly hats for Innocent’s bottles (25p from the sale of each hatted bottle goes to Age UK), and cultivating an image as a company that cares about offering a healthy product as sustainably as possible. Company documents outline an aim to become “the world’s favourite little healthy drinks company”.

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But Innocent has also, since 2013, been wholly owned by the Coca-Cola Company, the world’s largest plastic polluter, and its business is built on the global promotion of what dietitians describe as the “acute consumption of fructose”. The three Innocent founders stepped away at this point and now focus on a venture capital fund, JamJar, that invests in other matey, be-a-good-sort brands: Tony’s Chocolonely, Proper Corn, Oatly, Georgie & Tom’s.

Since March 2022 Innocent’s CEO ( “chief squeezer” in Innocentese) has been the former Coke executive Nick Canney. Its wellness-promoting, rainwater-recycling factory was paid for with Coke money.

“Coke own us, but we run completely separately,” replies Sam Akinluyi, Innocent’s UK managing director, when I put this to him during my tour of the Rotterdam factory. This is the company line, as expressed in a page hidden away on Innocent’s website: “They let us get on with it.”

[See also: The milkman on a mission]

Like everyone I met at Innocent, Akinluyi is amiable and sincere. Born in Nigeria, he moved with his family to the UK as a child when his father, a prominent microbiologist, was asked to bring his research here. Science runs in the family – his mother was an industrial chemist and science teacher, and his two brothers are engineers – but his entry into the food industry was decided by geography. An industrial placement was required for his banking and finance degree, and Akinluyi saw one advertised at Nestlé, based near his family home in Croydon. Realising he could live at home and save money, he joined Nestlé – “a Swiss watch of an organisation” – for a year, and returned as a graduate for a further five, before moving to the American food giant General Mills, where he worked on Häagen-Dazs ice cream, Betty Crocker (the fictional purveyor of baked goods) and Jus-Rol pastry. He left for a tech startup but returned to the industry, “kicking and screaming” when he became a parent.

But after five more years in a multinational food giant – Mars – Akinluyi once more went looking for something smaller and more meaningful. He founded Psalt, an organisation that helps people from under-represented backgrounds to develop their careers and launch new businesses. “When the Innocent opportunity came along [in 2021], I had to really think about the kind of company I wanted to work for, and Innocent ticked those boxes.”

Purpose-driven employees like Akinluyi also tick a lot of boxes for companies, and owning a “B Corp” (an ethical certification for companies) is a good way to bring in whole teams of them. Coca-Cola is far from the only giant to have done so. Danone, Nestlé and Diageo own a few B Corps each; Unilever owns nine.

In the offices at the Blender, the Innocent social media team are shooting pictures and videos to use in acts of “brandom” – social media updates in which a company acts like a person, with the aim of turning customers into fans. This is important to the image of a good company: the values cannot exist in a vacuum, there must be some persona that holds them. Innocent the brand is not a sham – it is a gestalt entity, conjured up by a group of friendly people with fun jobs and a real sense of purpose.

But the factory itself does not support cuteness. At one end, electric lorries (another world-first) arrive from a nearby shipping terminal carrying thousands of gallons of orange juice. Bananas, pears, strawberries and kiwis come in large sealed drums from suppliers around the world. The whole place has a rich, sweet smell of warm fruit. It’s noisy but there are very few people around; about 60 people per shift work in a complex the size of a regional airport. Miles of gleaming pipe (cleaned using a special system that reduces energy and water use) feed into huge tanks.

On the production line, hundreds of plastic “pre-forms” – plastic tubes about the size of a finger, with a threaded opening at one end – are fed into a machine that heats them to 110°C and then inflates them, with a blast of compressed air, into bottles. Moments later they are in another machine, in which they are rinsed, filled with orange juice, and their lids applied. The whole process takes seconds, so fast it seems to be an illusion. From a steel gantry we watch as a crowd of bottles begins making its way down the conveyor belt towards the packing robots.

The orange juice comes on a ship from Brazil. Is there any difference between the juice on the boat and the juice in the bottles? At what point does it become Innocent? “Essentially, it gets bottled here,” says Akinluyi, although he points out that most of Innocent’s products are “actively blended” – the smoothies for which the company is known. “It’s not just, bring it in and bottle it. There are a couple of examples of that when it comes to the range, but a lot of our complexity here is in the blending.”

At the same time, a lot of what’s really being made here is plastic bottles, of which Innocent sells millions per year; they are made from 50 per cent recycled plastic, 15 per cent plant-derived plastic and 35 per cent newly extracted fossil fuel. Last year, Innocent advertisements in which the company (through a singing cartoon otter) claimed to be “fixing up the planet” were banned by the Advertising Standards Agency after complaints from environmental campaigners. Like almost every other company selling goods in an oil-based global economy, the world’s favourite little healthy drinks company is a distributor for the world’s petrochemical industry.

[See also: A glimpse into Goldman Sachs’ gilded cage]

In the UK only around 30 per cent of that plastic is recycled. Innocent is an enthusiastic supporter of a deposit return scheme in Britain, in which consumers would pay an extra 20p on single-use containers and get the money back when they recycle them; Akinluyi calls it “the biggest thing we should focus on” in terms of reducing pollution. Such schemes were once common for glass bottles, and are now used in Germany, Scandinavia, Canada and Australia. In the UK, however, legislation has become another flashpoint between the Scottish government and Westminster: Scotland’s planned scheme has now been delayed for another year because the UK government said it would refuse to grant a necessary trade exemption.

In the meantime, says Akinluyi, Innocent is “absolutely looking at the other ways we can package a product”. Coca-Cola, too, has “a lot more people looking at this”.

Innocent is a company built on a British sense of humour and possibility. But its first factory – a building that exemplifies its values – is being run by Dutch workers on the other side of the North Sea; the UK is for Innocent an export destination.

This is largely to do with Rotterdam itself. On my visit I spoke to a representative of the port who said they had begun pursuing Innocent years before ground was broken for the factory. Ports and industrial areas are also keen to house ethical, green companies that will bolster their own environmental and social targets. Innocent already sourced its orange juice from a terminal on the port, so moving near by reduced costs and carbon. But it’s partly to do with where Innocent is headed as well.

The UK and Ireland make up more than 40 per cent of the company’s market, but it’s in France, the Netherlands and Germany where the opportunities lie.

In the longer term, it may also be about where the UK is headed. Brexit “has costs, it has added complexity”, says Akinluyi, but he says the choice of the Netherlands for the factory was about being efficient and distributing to the bigger European market. For a company that follows where the posh coffee is served, Innocent must also think about where affluent consumers will be found in the years to come. If the UK’s slow productivity growth continues, then within a decade Innocent can expect the people of Warsaw to have more purchasing power than people in many British cities.

That said, while the smoothies are delicious (in my view; other brands are available), the company trades on its character: chirpy, good-humoured, bluntly optimistic. This character may be questionable in its integrity, it may occasionally be inappropriate, and it’s probably not to everyone’s taste – but what could be more British than that?

[See also: Nick Beighton on building the Asos empire]

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