Unilever buy-outs: why they matter

Processed food giant Unilever is making no secret of reorienting its portfolio to include more organic, vegan and ostensibly healthy brands. Bulk buying clubs and food co-ops should be paying attention.

In 2017, Unilever gobbled up Pukka Herbs, best known for brightly packaged, organic herbal teas.

In 2018, it created Growing Roots as a U.S. snack brand which would also trade on supporting organic urban agriculture, and Red Red, a new range of vegan snack-pots. It later picked up the Dutch start-up Vegetarian Butcher, with its vegan meat-substitute options.

Now comes news that it has aquired the Graze range of ‘better for you snacks’, ahead of PepsiCo and Kellogg’s.

Like these rivals, Unilever is a sprawling global corporation with tentacles that are hard to keep track of, ranging from manufacturing big brands (like Hellman’s, PG Tips, Domestos and Knorr) to operating palm oil plantations. Its recent shift toward products bracketed as organic, vegan or both is no sign of Unilever becoming more ethical, but simply a case of chasing new areas of profit. It is taking its expertise in marketing products that are highly processed and packaged and turning it toward lines that can project a healthier sheen.

If you’ve never previously heard of Graze (I hadn’t), the company sells tiny plastic pouches of trail mix and the like that are frivolous and wasteful in the extreme – but doubtless highly profitable. Anyone in the bulk buying mindset would reel at the ‘cost per kilo’ of these snacks, but Unilever’s buy-out brings more clear signs of the kind of areas where ‘big food’ will be seeking its future profits.

In Europe, unlike the U.S., relatively few ‘health food’ brands have been hoovered up by big corporate names at this stage. But we should expect to see more – and that poses a challenge. Bulk buying clubs tend to attract ethically motivated members but also emphasise democracy and consensus. That means that the idea of dropping popular brands after a buy-out is no simple matter and can be a wrench for a group.

That’s why it’s a good idea for any group to lay some groundwork by adopting a few principles in a basic buying policy, however bare bones, to help handle such issues as they arise.

About this site

This site aims to encourage and support the setting up of further bulk buying clubs and small food co-ops in Ireland by sharing the experience of individuals who have operated a ‘pop-up wholefoods’ model over a number of years.