Clif Bar began as an idea between friends that grew into a company that contracted others to make its products and is now its own manufacturer. Part of the reason for this shift, they claim, is because they wanted greater control over where their ingredients come from and how they are processed and assembled. Now, they operate based on five main values: people, community, planet, brand, and business.
As a brand that grew out of outdoor activities, they have an emphasis on health and therefore offer protein bars. I, on my search for protein products, came across their Mint Chocolate Builder Protein Bar and, having not found a particularly good-tasting protein bar yet, decided to give it a try. I was pleasantly surprised by the taste but not by the nutrition facts. Despite Clif being a sustainable company, their bars themselves are not: they contain many processed ingredients and a lot of sugar. If you’re looking for a quick and protein-rich snack, I still would recommend it, based on the taste and the company’s dedication to having positive impacts on the environment (they are trying to be sustainable in terms of their factories and company efforts, but their products are far from perfect), but be warned that the protein bar is not the healthiest (to the body or to nature) option.
The protein from the Builder protein bars comes from soy, and although their extraction process is not described, the most common one is through alkali solution acid precipitation. While the process is reasonably energy-efficient, the alkali residue is often placed with waste, making it easy for it to contaminate nearby waterways. Also, soy farming in general leads to deforestation, although they do not specify if their soy comes from any certified source. Their cocoa, chocolate, and alkalized cocoa, however, are Rainforest Alliance Certified and organic. The alliance monitors areas and risks of deforestation across some of cocoa-producing regions, while also ensuring that workers have dignified housing, medical care, and access to education for their children. While the certification guarantees those on-farm rights, it does not set a minimum pay for buyers or assist the farmers in maintaining long relationships with their buyers, which would ideally help their financial security. So although the certification may seem to ensure good working conditions for the workers, it does not, especially with Clif not elaborating on the conditions it looks for in cacao farms. Also, some of their cocoa is alkalized, which contributes to the contamination problem mentioned with the protein isolation process. There is less contamination from the cocoa itself, however, as it is organic.
Ingredients that are organic are not automatically good for the environment; rice, for example, and its derivatives emit a lot of GHGs during decomposition of residue. The problem is somewhat mitigated by being organic, as the emissions from fertilizers when the fields are flooded is less of an issue. It does require energy to be processed, as sugars do, so significant energy consumption from this is an unavoidable problem. There are some possible alternatives to cane sugar that would require less energy, like responsibly-sourced agave syrup (sweeter than brown rice syrup, so less of it would be needed).
There are a lot of processed ingredients that go into the protein bar, from soy lecithin to “natural flavors.” The latter usually refers to flavor derived through highly processed means, and lecithin is extracted from raw soybeans, of which the farming processes can lead to deforestation, as mentioned with the soy protein isolate.
A big part of small products sold in high numbers is packaging. CLIF seems to be placing an increased emphasis on that aspect, as they joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Global Commitment, a pledge to make all their packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025. They seem to have a vague plan, as they said their first step is to make the CLIF Bar compostable. It would be nice to see a more specific plan, however, or some personal deadlines, since they have been working on making more sustainable packaging since 2003, when they first made their caddies out of 100% recycled cardboard. Their packaging goals are a little confusing, since in addition to their packaging pledge, they also mention that they will make their plastic use at least 25% from recycled materials, but I’m not sure why they will be using any non-recycled plastic if they want their packaging to be biodegradable.
Clif did not always make their own bars, but since 2016, most of their bars come from their own Twin Falls Bakery. The building itself is energy-efficient, with its smart lighting, reflective roof, and water source heat pump combining to make it use 20% less energy than average for a manufacturing plant, and one third of the energy that it does consume comes from its solar farm. Although it did manage to go LEED Zero Waste, its general sustainability is Gold certified, which is not bad, but the company could probably do better if they wanted to, as they are able to maintain a waste diversion rate of over 90% rate overall. They scored especially low on the “sustainable sites” category for a lack of access to public transportation and community connectivity. It is not listed how the score on “connectivity” is measured, and with their emphasis on community and employee programs, I think the company does actually place an emphasis on employees when it comes to environmental protection.
The bars are made in about an hour through many stages, most of which are machine-controlled. Special ingredients, however, like chocolate, are added to the assembled bars by hand. The cooling and packaging are automated processes that follow the formation of the bars.
A large part of the process is automated, as is most large-scale production. What is more important, then, is how energy-efficient the process is and where that energy is coming from. Clif is a member of RE100 and uses 100% renewable energy at all their facilities, which includes not only their headquarters but even their manufacturing bakeries.
Clif says that they are trying to “redesign the business of food for health, equity, and Earth,” and in terms of environmental (and somewhat on the social front as well) sustainability, I was very impressed that they are basically living up to that grand statement. They are willing to use their own resources to promote sustainable practices, like with their Cool Commute program, where they incentivize their employees to switch to bicycles or highly fuel-efficient vehicles by taking on part of the expenses. They also offered their suppliers the opportunity to get environmental consulting at Clif’s own expense, which shows a commitment to having a positive impact on the planet that goes beyond just wanting “green” associated with their brand name. For their effort in reducing their own emissions as well as their supply chain’s, they were awarded the Climate Leadership Award for Supply Chain Leadership in 2017.
In addition to helping their employees and suppliers, Clif also prioritizes sustainability within their own company. One of their plants, located in Twin Falls, Idaho, became the first food-manufacturing plant to go LEED Zero Waste, which marks the plant as Platinum level on Green Business Certification Inc.’s TRUE certification. This entails that the Twin Falls building diverted an average of more than 90% of their waste away from landfills. To be eligible for the certification, the company must also have published waste initiatives. In addition to having a high diversion rate, Clif is also working on the 10x20x30 initiative, where 10 large food retailers are working with 20 suppliers to reduce food waste (by half) by 2030. Aside from waste, the LEED certification also requires that contamination from materials taken out of the building does not exceed 10%. While some of the waste-diversion requirements depended on 12-month data or company policy, there is no specified method for checking for contamination. Especially since their Builder protein bars use alkali in several components, I hope that the certification was truly able to check contamination levels. Clif has had to recall some Builder and Kid bars in the past due to contamination; this was about mix-ups within the factory and not with waste disposal necessarily, but it still makes for some questions about their contamination protocols, which have not been published.
Their emphasis is mostly on efforts outside the factory, however, with donations and other funding. They are listed as the #1 funder of organic research, and their estates and vineyards are all certified organic. Although they claim that they are also non-GMO, the bars are not actually certified to reflect that. Instead, their site says that they have their own (not listed) requirements that suppliers must meet to be considered non-GMO, but they seem not to line up with official Non-GMO Project requirements. It would be helpful if they explained what their requirements are, but they do imply that they have some in place; while their ingredients tend to be largely processed, they do have sustainable practices when it comes to their buildings and employees.