A series of food scandals unfolded in Taiwan over the past few years have aroused heated discussions and widespread concern among the public. Many companies are identified to have put both public health and the environment at risk because of their unreliable procurement and production process. Yet, are consumers really able to be on the alert for such incidents and change their consumer behavior? Or is it more likely that most consumers could only continue consuming the fraudulent food provided by dishonest companies due to information asymmetry? While the general atmosphere is worrying, many people and organizations are dedicated to safeguarding food safety and agricultural ecology.
In 2010, three young people spent days and nights carefully nurturing a batch of seeds, waiting for them to sprout and grow. After countless days of waiting and disappointment, they finally managed to raise the sprouts as they hoped for – healthy, non-toxic, and organic. And with the same ideals, these three young people built a social enterprise, Greenvines.
The original aspiration: offering more support to those who are honest
“Our society should offer more support to those who are honest,” says Harris Cheng, Co-Founder of Greenvines. Used to work at a multinational bank and holding an MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management, Harris decided to embark on an alternative journey and founded Greenvines with two of his classmates from National Taiwan University, Department of Finance. Their aspiration has been to gather the strength from the society, in which they saw less and less integrity and authenticity, to foster positive changes, by producing and promoting organic sprouts as well as developing other natural, environmentally friendly products.
Before establishing Greenvines, the three founders undertook a consulting project for Homemakers Union Consumers Co-op, one of the leading environmental organizations in Taiwan, and helped the organization reach their goals to attract younger members and increase the number of branches. Throughout this experience, they realized that there was too little authenticity in our daily life. “Just too many defective products that we eat and use every day,” says Evelyn Liao, one of the co-founders. When researching and interviewing the Co-op about sustainable agriculture and retail channels in the food industry, the consulting team couldn’t help but kept asking themselves: “How could this happen? Why is there no one to solve these problems?”
In light of this experience, Harris Cheng, Evelyn Liao, and Jack Hsu left their jobs at big companies and devoted themselves to setting up their start- up, aiming at bringing more positive changes to the society. “The fastest way to make changes is to do it on your own.” Harris reckons that individuals in large companies are less likely to have their ideas taken into account and fully executed as well as to realize their vision. Thus, the group of friends decided to start their own business, opening up different opportunities.
A passion for research and product development leads to the innovation of “standing” sprouts
“Everyone has different ways to address similar issues and at Greenvines we are most passionate about our products!” Harris further says that they are keen to deconstruct products and to observe if there are potential possibilities to apply changes. Greenvines puts great emphasis on product research and development, investing almost all budget on this aspect. Harris, of course, also recognizes that they need to “sell the products after developing them.”
Therefore, Greenvines has differentiated its product, organic sprouts, from those of its competitors. Greenvines’ fresh sprouts “live” in a transparent standing package, unlike those whose stems are already cut when being put on the shelves in big supermarkets. For the “LIFE” collection, such as shampoo and toning water, Greenvines also uses environmentally friendly and recyclable packaging materials. Greenvines calls for everyone, who lives in this era where climate change has been more and more extreme, to exercise the power as a consumer and embrace a healthy lifestyle over the unhealthy, unsustainable one.
Evelyn points out that it’s inevitable for a start-up to experience the gap between expectations and reality. She takes Greenvines’ living sprouts and standing packaging as an example. “If you see a bag of sprouts, you’ll just eat them. But if you see a ‘standing’ box of sprouts, suddenly you are not sure what this is exactly.” Evelyn also shares that, on a start-up journey, difficulties will just keep surfacing. An entrepreneur’s mind should be like a sheet of white paper, continuously absorbing new skills and perspectives to solve the problems.
Sustainable food and agricultural education: revolutionizing the food industry using the collective power of consumers
“Being aware of my own unawareness, I realize that the ignorance comes from lack of food education.” Harris reasons that the general public actually has a very limited understanding of the original form of the food. For example, when consumers go grocery shopping in supermarkets, the vegetables they see are already cut into pieces or processed. Facing the increasing challenges caused by global warming as well as the heated discussions about food safety, the three co-founders are determined to promote sustainable food and agricultural education and help consumers become more aware of what they eat and drink in everyday life. Under this initiative, Greenvines hosts workshops and sessions in different elementary schools every month, encouraging students to understand and appreciate the relationship between human and nature at an early age.
Both Harris and Evelyn demand a very high standard of quality for their products. They believe that the “living” sprouts have a unique value in the market and expect the shampoo product to meet the high standards of the “LIFE” collection as well. Furthermore, they have been carrying on researching, developing, and innovating at an in- depth level, as they believe all existing products can always get better.