Cut Gary Hirshberg and he'd probably bleed green blood. The gregarious, Prius-driving president and 'Ce-Yo' of Stonyfield Farm, the world's largest organic yoghurt company, is something of an organic crusader in the US and an outspoken critic of George Bush's environmental record - so much so he has a clock in his office counting down the days to the end of his presidency. (There are 621 when we meet during a flying visit to the UK.)
Now Hirshberg, who offset the air miles of course, is bringing his unique brand of green ambition to the UK. Next month, Stonyfield is launching a low-fat organic yoghurt and fromage frais under a totally new brand called Stony in what he says will be a very "non-intimidating" approach to organics. Hirshberg wants to introduce an American sense of humour to a market that he feels is a bit po-faced. "The reason we wanted to do something here is because the UK has probably the most mature and sophisticated organic market in the world," he says. "If we can prove our relevance here we can probably do it anywhere."
He'll certainly have his work cut out. Stony is up against some pretty stiff competition from the likes of Yeo Valley and Rachel's Organic. Hirshberg, however, is not fazed. "There are some niches not being filled. Organic is growing but penetration is still in single digits. A lot of early organic products have been very sober and that's OK to the core environmental type, but the average person wants something more fun."
Stonyfield's approach will be dynamic rather than didactic, more provocative than preaching, says Hirshberg. The fun will come in the form of the flavours - Vanilla the Hun, Sustainable Strawberry and Natural High.
"It won't be an eat-your-spinach approach. Organic can't just be about doing the right thing. I've got three teenagers and you can't lecture them on anything. You don't have to wear Birkenstocks to eat organic yoghurt and you don't have to worship cows to eat organic. The brands here are wonderful but not provocative."
It all sounds very American, but Hirshberg insists there's nothing gung-ho about the way Stonyfield operates - unlike US foreign policy, which he vehemently opposes. "I don't feel proud about our behaviour around the world and I don't want us to be seen as landing on English beaches and saying 'we've got something to teach you'," he says. "Our competitors don't have a lot to worry about. They have done an amazing job. I went to visit Tim Mead (Yeo Valley chief executive) three years ago and said I wanted to come to the market but not to copy them."
Stonyfield and Hirshberg have come a long way since the company's humble beginnings as a seven-cow organic farming school in New Hampshire. The company, which this year celebrates its 24th birthday, has a global turnover of £325m annually. Not bad for a man who claims to have no business background. "Like most entrepreneurs we began as a hypothesis," he says. "There was a big question mark hanging over the company for the first 10 years of our existence."
The company has also strengthened its position through its partnership in 2001 with Group Danone. Working with Danone, which now owns about 80% of Stonyfield's shares, it introduced the brand to France.
He rejects any comparison however with Ben & Jerry's acquisition by Unilever a year earlier. "When big companies buy smaller organic companies like Ben & Jerry's the smaller company undergoes management changes," he says. "Danone made no changes to our management or to our environmental and social missions. It brings a formidable legacy of quality - yoghurt is a religion for it. I recognised that if there were a way I could partner with somebody else who has the resources to meet all the needs of the consumer while at the same time staying loyal to our mission of sustainability it would be useful."
Last June, Stonyfield acquired a third of Irish organic dairy Glenisk, which will be the source of milk for its products in the UK. While some farmers and processors bemoan the steady erosion of margins at the hands of cheaper own-label organic products, Hirshberg welcomes it.
"The price premium on organic has been the Achilles heel of the industry and has kept it for the elitists," he says. "Yes, farmers are not getting the same premiums as they were at the beginning of the organic movement but they are selling more volume and costs are going down. You can't talk to a farmer who won't tell you that they are more efficient than when they started. Our commitment has always been to put farmers on an equal footing as other companies. If organic is priced unrealistically high then it is only being sold to the affluent. That's not how we save the world."
Stonyfield takes a very firm line not just on organic but with all green issues. As well as being the first company in the US to become carbon- neutral back in 1997, the company supports a number of environmental charities. It is sponsoring the world's largest climate awareness event, Live Earth, which takes place across all seven continents in July. "There's a larger equation of which farming is a subset, and that is how as companies we are relating to the planet," says Hirshberg.
The need for more recycling may be an issue gaining momentum in the UK, but Hirshberg thinks people are barking up the wrong tree and that reduction is the best approach.
"Recycling should not be an obsession because there is energy involved in it. It's what you do if you've failed to reduce," he says bluntly.
So passionate is Hirshberg about helping the environment that he has even devised a system of scoring a company's commitments to reducing carbon emissions - that could offer a third way to companies not sure whether to plump for the Carbon Trust's or Tesco's carbon footprint schemes. He has invested £500,000 in Climate Counts, which he describes as a "less thorough but more widely useable alternative" to the Carbon Trust's carbon footprint labelling scheme, and hopes to introduce it to the UK soon.
The scheme awards points for four criteria - whether a company is measuring its carbon emissions; whether it is reducing them; if it is reporting on what it is doing; and whether it is pushing for positive legislation.
A company is then given a final score out of 100. He plans to divulge Stonyfield's score next month, but freely admits it's not good enough yet. "If my child came back with homework with these results he would be held on probation," he says only half jokingly. Clearly, he takes having a sense of humour pretty seriously.n
What is your pet hate?
George Bush. He is a gross embarrassment to the country and an insult to my children because he refused to sign Kyoto. I have a clock in my office that counts down the time remaining for the Bush presidency. Even when I have a really bad meeting I come back to my desk and another hour has gone by on the clock. Then it becomes a really good meeting.
What is a typical day like?
I wish I had one. I can wake up in New Hampshire and have breakfast in the UK. I shift from marketing to finance to politics on a daily basis. It is not a lifestyle I would recommend. That said, a day doesn't pass when I don't wake up and feel excited.
What achievement are you most proud of?
That there are 1,200 organic dairy farmers that would not be in business if it wasn't for our company. There must be between 5,000 and 10,000 people who are positively affected by the business, and that makes me proud.
How do you relax?
Whatever I'm doing for my job I make sure that I am home at the weekends. It's a chance to spend time with my family. I help train my local girls' soccer team, which means I have an 18-girl squad to keep up with.
What do you think of Whole Foods Market coming to the UK?
Whole Foods is a great store and we are glad to be supplying it with yoghurt, but it's only one outlet. It is going to do well and has created a lot of excitement, but as far as we're concerned we want to get into the multiples. That's how we will grow our brand