Clif Bar: Pushing Green-Sports Boundaries for 25 Years By “Thinking Like a Tree”

If there were a Green-Sports Corporate Hall of Fame, Clif Bar would be a charter member. The Emeryville (near Berkeley), CA-based company has produced tasty, nutritious, organic energy bars for cyclists, climbers, skiers, snowboarders, mountain bikers, surfers triathletes, runners and other outdoor/adventure athletes since 1992. And to say that sustainability is core to its DNA is a massive understatement.

GreenSportsBlog took a deep dive into Clif Bar, its history as a sustainable business and green-sports leader, along with its plans to take both to the next level.


“We aspire to be a company that thinks like a tree,” enthused Elysa Hammond, Clif Bar’s vice president of environmental stewardship, at an engaging talk in New York City this fall.


What does “think like a tree” mean?

“Trees run on renewable energy, recycle all waste, and sustain and improve the places where they grow,” explained Hammond, “‘Thinking like a tree’ is how we go about making good on the most critical part of our environmental mission, which is to help build the climate movement.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard of a food company with an environmental mission of “building the climate [change fighting] movement.” But am I ever glad there is one, and that it’s Clif Bar.


Elysa Hammond

Elysa Hammond, Clif Bar’s vice president of environmental stewardship (Photo credit: Clif Bar)


And once I learned about Clif’s history, its “do well by doing good” ethos, its “Five Aspirations” (we’ll get to that a bit later) — and its deep connection to sports —the company’s environmental mission made perfect sense.

Now, you may ask, “What does its deep connection to sports have to do with Clif’s ‘build the climate movement’ mission?”

It goes back to Clif’s beginnings about 25 years ago.

You see, according to Hammond, Clif was “born on a bike.”

OK, now I get “think like a tree” but “born on bike”?

Turns out, Gary Erickson, the company’s founder, was on a 170 mile bike ride — referred to in Clif Bar lore as “The Epiphany Ride” — eating primitive, unappealing energy bars. He said to himself, “I can make a better tasting, more nutritious bar.”


Gary Erikson

Clif Bar founder Gary Erickson (Photo credit: Clif Bar)

Erickson and his team have certainly raised the bar on tasty (as well as nutritious and organic) energy bars and other foods — while also leading the sustainable business and climate movements, with winter, adventure and outdoor athletes playing integral roles.


Clif Bar: Sustainable Business Leader

We will get to the Clif—athletes connections in a moment. But first, please indulge me while I give you a CliffsNotes version of the company’s unusual history. [Ed. Note: OK, you knew that pun was coming sooner or later. I thought “let’s get it out of the way early.” It won’t happen again.]

  • The company’s name, Clif, also happens to be the first name of Erickson’s dad
  • Clif Bar took off soon after its founding and, by 2000, “Big Food” suitors looked to buy it. In fact, Quaker was prepared to snap Clif up for $120 million. Erickson was poised to sign the papers — his business partner wanted to sell; a less sure Erickson was going to go along with it…Until…Minutes before he was going to sign, Erickson said to the lawyers in attendance “I need to take a walk.” Upon returning, he said “no deal.” He wanted to remain independent, to run the company sustainably. A bank was found to loan Erickson money to buy out the partner and he was able to retain control of the company.
  • Staying independent spurred Erickson to incorporate a “Five Bottom Line” approach to sustainably managing the business, which ultimately became the “Five Aspirations,” which Clif incorporated into its bylaws in 2010:
    1. Sustaining the Business: Building a resilient company, investing for the long-term.
    2. Sustaining the Brands: Creating brands with integrity, quality and authenticity.
    3. Sustaining its People: Working side-by-side, encouraging each other, Clif is its people
    4. Sustaining Communities: Promoting healthy, sustainable communities, locally and globally
    5. Sustaining the Planet: Conserving and restoring natural resources while growing a business that operates in harmony with the laws of nature. To make good on this aspiration, Clif works diligently on four sustainability “progress areas”
      • Sustainable Food and Agriculture
      • Climate Action
      • Zero-waste
      • Conserve and restore natural resources

Beginning in 2002, major, long-term, sustainability-infused business decisions became hallmarks: Clif Bars would be made with organic and sustainable ingredients, baked in facilities that run on renewable energy, recycle all waste, come wrapped in eco-friendly packaging, and shipped in ways that don’t pollute.


Clif Bar


No sweat, right?

Those decisions have led to stunning results, as the company:

  • Earned organic certification for the Clif energy bar in 2003, the first of many of its foods to be so designated
  • Now generates 80 percent of the electricity used at its headquarters from an on-site solar array
  • Achieved an 88 percent diversion rate of waste from landfill
  • Is aggressively greening its supply chain. “We have a ’50/50 by 2020′ goal with our supply chain,” explained Hammond. “That means we are working with 50 supply chain facilities to source 50 percent or more the electricity used for Clif products from clean power by 2020.”
  • Is transitioning away from trucks and towards rail, which will result in a 70 percent reduction in transportation-related carbon emissions.
  • Reimburses employees up to $6,500 when they purchase a car that meets Clif standards including being electric or a hybrid that gets 45 miles per gallon or more


Adventure Sports Exemplify Clif Bar’s Ethos and Key to Early Growth

For Hammond, the Clif Bar-Sports story goes all the way back to that famous Epiphany Ride. “Climbing and cycling were foundational sports from the very beginning. Athletes were our first customers and have been evangelizing for Clif and a sustainable planet since the beginning. In fact, many of the athletes we sponsor are passionate environmentalists. Now, to get the full Clif Bar-Sports story, you should talk to Bryan Cole.”

Who is Bryan Cole? The 15-year Clif Bar veteran’s very long job title — senior manager of adventure sports marketing and environmental partnerships — is matched by the long list of adventure sports in which he takes part — Backcountry skier, mountain biker, surfer, and climber.

When Cole described his perfect work world being one “in which I can merge as many of Clif Bar’s Five Aspirations as possible into actual projects, with athletes who care about the planet,” I naturally asked for examples.

“On the micro-level, we took three pro athletes we sponsor — a snowboarder, a surfer, and a prone paddler — to Nicaragua ” shared Cole. “During the days, we worked on the ‘Sustaining our Communities’ aspiration with Surf For Life by helping to build a music room at a school. This allowed a marching band to form and have a place to practice.”

Looking through a wider lens, Cole also cited the company’s sponsorship of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team as being rooted in shared values and quality: “The relationship came to be because the team liked our products’ nutritional profile and taste and we are proud to support these athletes and a team whose values align with ours.”


Clif Bar Sponsored Athletes Go the Extra Green Mile

The environmental actions taken by many Clif athletes, from helping advocate in the fight against climate change to conservation advocacy, and more, are nothing short of incredible.

Snowboarder Jeremy Jones is the founder of Protect Our Winters (POW), originally a group of winter sports athletes who are at the forefront of rallying the outdoor sports community to build a movement against climate change. POW is in the early stages of expanding its athlete ambassador roster to include non-winter adventure sports.


Jeremy Jones - Jeff Curley - Clif

Jeremy Jones, founder of Protect Our Winters (Photo credit: Jeff Curley)



Greg Long, is a big wave surfer and an ambassador for the Surfrider Foundation and Parley for the Oceans, two innovative nonprofits dedicated to finding comprehensive solutions that will result in the protection of the world’s oceans, waves and beaches.


Greg Long, 2015

Greg Long (Photo credit: Clif Bar)



I saw big mountain skier Caroline Gleich speak powerfully about the urgency and importance of protecting America’s public lands from development at the 2015 Green Sports Alliance Summit in Chicago. Clif and Caroline are perfect partners.



Caroline Gleich (Photo credit: Caroline Gleich)



Forrest Shearer is a true Green-Sports renaissance man: Big mountain snowboarder. Surfer. POW member. Advocate for wilderness protection.


Forrest Shearer via Barbara Weber

Forrest Shearer (Photo credit: Protect Our Winters)



Mountain biker Casey Brown, from the woods of western Canada, needed funding to pursue her sport. “Casey turned down opportunities from energy drink companies as they and their products did not align with her values,” related Cole. “As part of our contract with Casey, we decided to create and have her wear a Clif branded helmet. This was one of our first moves into full helmet branding and we believed that her authenticity would connect with younger fans. So we made Casey a Clif Bar branded helmet and are glad we did.”


Casey Brown in Pemberton, British Columbia, August 2016.

Casey Brown (Photo credit: Sterling Lorence)


If Clif Bar Really Wants to Build the Climate Movement, Shouldn’t It Connect with MLB, NBA, etc.?

Clif Bar’s partnerships with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team, the athletes listed above, as well as with organizations like the Surfrider Foundation and more, make perfect sense from the brand’s outdoor, adventure, somewhat outsider image.

And that approach has certainly worked — while Clif is privately held and thus isn’t required to release sales figures, the company has been on a steady growth path, recently opening a state-of-the-art “green” bakery in Idaho and acquiring a bakery in Indiana. And its brand image is pristine and authentic.

But, if the company’s mission is to build a climate movement that touches and inspires as many people as possible, shouldn’t Clif become involved with the sports with the biggest followings? In North America, that, of course, means baseball, basketball, football, and more. Especially since athletes in those sports are increasingly embracing healthy eating as well as lifestyles. Or, would doing so put the company at risk of being seen as too mainstream, a sellout of sorts, by its fans as well as by the athletes they sponsor?

“Adventure sports is our heritage and we are therefore cautious regarding the bigger sports. We want to ‘keep it real’ for our athletes and consumers,” acknowledged Cole. “On the other hand, we do recognize that our products and our mission would appeal to athletes of all stripes and to their fans. So we will carefully explore working with more mainstream team and individual sports as time goes on.”

My 2¢? The big sports need the cache, authenticity, outsider-ness and energy that Clif Bar would bring them as much if not more so than Clif needs them. Thus, to my mind, Clif can thread the needle — keeping it real and going big league at the same time. I bet fitness and nutrition devotees like LeBron James, Serena Williams and/or Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin, to name a very few, would be good fits for Clif — and vice versa.



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