The founder of WholeSoy & Co. talks about GMO food, responsible business, and right livelihood.
When it comes to eco-friendly food choices, some folks buy organic, while others go vegan. WholeSoy & Company, an independent business based in San Francisco, has everybody covered with their organic, non-GMO soy yogurt. Food doesn’t get much greener than that.
I recently had the chance to talk with the founder and CEO of WholeSoy & Co., Ted A. Nordquist, PhD. He shared his thoughts on sustainable business, social change, and genetically modified food. And, as a former scholar of Asian religion, Dr. Nordquist wasn’t afraid to delve into the philosophical roots of his green endeavors.
Nordquist’s adventures with soyfood began in 1975, when he met William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, authors of the Book of Tofu, a work credited with awakening Western interest in tofu. After learning from them the traditional Asian methods of crafting soyfoods, Nordquist founded Sweden’s first tofu plant, Aros Sojaprodukter KB, where he and five employees made from two to four tons of tofu products each week.
In 1994 Nordquist moved back to the United States, founding WholeSoy & Co a few years later. Although WholeSoy & Co now has the bestselling non-dairy yogurt on the market, Nordquist is eager to point out that the company has not outgrown its green values.
To many business leaders, sustainability is a tool for marketing products and improving public relations. Ted Nordquist is different, in that respect; sustainability is an essential piece of his personal philosophy.
Nordquist thinks of Earth as a mother. “Everything people do in relation to the plant and animal kingdoms has to somehow contribute to the health and wellbeing of the planet.”
Nordquist’s commitment to social and environmental responsibility is inspired, in part, by his studies of Eastern spirituality. In his former job as a professor of Asian philosophy at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, he focused on the history of religion. Although he has a degree in political science, he has found that “politics is not really where change occurs.” Instead, “politics reflects changes in the fundamental values” of a society. “Fundamental beliefs steer how a culture evolves.”
His own beliefs about sustainability are rooted in the concept of right livelihood—the idea that one’s occupation should influence the planet and its life in a positive way. While right livelihood is part of Buddhism’s teachings, Nordquist sees it as universal, not restricted to a certain belief system. “Living peacefully and wholesomely,” he says, is a “fundamental aspect” of all religions. “It’s just common sense.”
What Nordquist calls “common sense” may sound like an impractically high standard in today’s business world. But Nordquist is determined to set an example through his own company by recognizing the triple bottom line: not just profits, but also people and planet.
How does this thinking apply to a soy yogurt company? To start, WholeSoy & Co uses organic, non-genetically modified soybeans, processing them with a chemical-free method. The company sources fruit locally and donates money to dozens of nonprofits. Also, because of the office’s location, the entire staff can commute via public transportation.
Nordquist points out that the family-owned, independent nature of WholeSoy & Co has allowed it to develop a flexible policy with its employees. For example, he says, one woman worked from home during her pregnancy and continues to do so while caring for her child.
How does the philosophy of right livelihood translate to large-scale business? “A problem is size,” Nordquist says. As businesses swell, they tend to become less personal and less sincerely committed to responsibility. “I do think companies with a high level of social responsibility and sustainability will be smaller.”
Right now, the market is controlled by multinational giants that focus on operating with the lowest cost, often at the expense of people and nature. But Nordquist sees the beginnings of a shift in consumer values. He hopes that buyers will “start looking at their local community and start purchasing goods and services from people they know and trust. If this trend continues… more of these companies will be able to be socially responsible and the economy overall will be more sustainable.”
Continue to Part 2 of the interview with Dr. Nordquist.