The new documentary “Seeding Change” explores conscious commerce.
It’s been two decades since Ryan Black brought açaí from Brazil to the U.S. for the first time. The berry, popular on the hot beaches of Rio where he found himself for the Y2K millennium celebration, was virtually unheard of in the U.S. Black set out to change that. Along with his brother, Jeremy, and some friends, he founded Sambazon in 2000. The brand is now synonymous with açaí. Sambazon, which stands for sustaining and managing the Brazilian Amazon, is at the center of the new documentary, Seeding Change, directed by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Richard Yelland.
“When we first went to Brazil and were introduced to açaí, we made it our mission to show the world this incredible superfood,” Ryan told me via email. “After meeting more of the local community and spending time in Brazil, we quickly realized that we couldn’t create Sambazon without creating a responsible supply chain and giving back to the community and the Amazon Rainforest. Seeing how much Sambazon has grown in the past two decades is so rewarding and knowing that the heart and soul of our business revolves around creating positive change for our planet and its people makes it even better.”
I first met Ryan in the company’s infancy. I was living in Miami, working at a sales brokerage firm that represented natural food brands including Tofurky, Clif Bar, and Yogi Tea. I didn’t know it yet, but in just a few years, we’d represent Sambazon, too. And a few years after that, I’d work directly for the brand running its East Coast marketing efforts. But back in 2000, açaí might as well have come from another planet.
At the time, my roommate was the manager of the upscale juice bar inside the South Beach location of the Ralph Lauren store. Ryan had been in the shop a few weeks earlier, making his rounds to all the smoothie and juice bars in the area—there were many. I remember that first night when my roommate came home with these frozen purple blocks of an exotic fruit he forgot how to pronounce. He said it was the best thing he’d ever tried. After I tasted it that evening, it was hard to disagree. A few weeks later, I was in the shop, perched at the counter, when Ryan came in again to see if the juice bar needed more açaí. It was an easy sell. Everyone loved it.
There’s something magical about açaí—it is familiar yet entirely new. Like chocolate ice cream, the first taste of the rich purple, sweet fruit delivers an instant jolt of satisfaction; smiles are common when consuming açaí.
And while Ryan was smiling as he and my roommate talked about the strange Brazilian fruit, he had a look on his face that we all know when we see it. There was a drive, a mission much bigger than that little purple berry. A former football player, Ryan had the look of focus, glancing toward the endzone that opened to a future that just might save the rainforest—and all of us along with it.
His drive paid off. “When we started nobody even knew what açaí was, so for us to now have brought millions and millions of dollars into the local grower communities, donated over $1M to help improve their lives and protect hundreds of thousands of acres of the Amazon, it’s really amazing,” Ryan says.
Açaí: Brazil’s Best-Kept Secret
It’s not that Brazil was intentionally trying to hide açaí from the world. But the fruit’s incredibly fragile nature made it next to impossible to export. The fat-rich palm berry is the most abundant fruit in the Amazon. It’s sustained the regional populations for millennia, containing some of the highest levels of essential fatty acids of any food. As a result, açaí goes bad quickly. It’s why it’s most often sold frozen, like ice cream.
“Açaí is a superfood that is really embedded in nature and the earth, which is why it’s popular among surfing and yoga communities,” says Jeremy. Its superfood status made it very much a near-overnight success in the U.S.; in the early 2000s as Americans were gobbling down healthy concoctions in the forms of powders and shakes in a quest to shake off their unhealthy eating habits of the 1990s, açaí was a revelation. It promised all of the benefits of superfoods, but without the chalky unpleasantness of green powders or protein shakes. If any food busted the myth that healthy food tasted terrible, it was—and certainly still is—açaí.
The Black brothers and the Sambazon team soon found their groove—and funding. By 2008, the company had raised more than $12 million. The brand was already a smoothie bar mainstay—then, smoothie bars that focus predominantly on açaí itself began popping up. Açaí was also a mainstay at festivals including Coachella—long lines would stretch out across the dining field as samba music blared out from Sambazon’s booth. The bikini-clad Brazilian women hired to serve the frosty treats were as much of an attraction as the fruit itself; they’d serve it up traditional beach style, topped with fresh fruit and granola.
Açaí was indeed a hit, but for the brand, it was always meant as an entry point to a bigger conversation about sustainability. “Aside from its health benefits, we’ve worked to share our message that açaí also makes the Amazon more valuable standing than cut down, and each purchase helps the grower communities,” says Jeremy. “By creating a purpose-driven brand with a product that so many Americans know and love, we’re also spreading a message about the importance of social and environmental responsibility.”
Seeding Change, which the Black brothers executive produced and funded, delivers a snapshot of this. “It’s about a generation of social entrepreneurs who have built successful companies with foundations in social and environmental responsibility,” says Ryan.
Alongside the Sambazon family, the film features other brands in the space, like the member-based online supermarket, Thrive Market, Dr. Bronner’s soap, Numi Tea, and OuterKnown.
“Many of the brands behind this documentary have been at the forefront of this movement to reshape capitalism away from rampant negative impact that destroys the world, and supply chains that make the world a better place,” says Gunnar Lovelace, Thrive Market’s founder.
The film delves into the inner workings of values-driven brands. It’s also dotted with wisdom from surfer Rob Machado and environmentalist Paul Hawken. It tackles the tough question about whether or not commerce is helping or hurting our chances of reversing climate change.
“I think this is one of the most important questions of our time,” says Lovelace. “The jury is fundamentally still out on whether we as a species can harness the incredible creative power we have to be good stewards of the earth. As a species, we are deeply self-motivated and buying things as consumers, represents that deep self-interest and biological pressure,” he says.
Ryan agrees. “These issues are never simple. People need to make money to feed their families and have normal lives. Even honest politicians are conflicted by these forces. Beef, for example, has historically been the largest income generator in the Amazon (a recent study named açaí as #2), but also one of the most destructive,” he explains. “Alternatively, finding solutions to making money while protecting the environment and supporting communities is what social entrepreneurship is all about,” he says.
Seeding Change highlights the unique supply chain relationships fostered by the brands; there are the coconut, olive, and hemp growers that the Bronner family now knows by name; the tea growers supplying every cup of Numi; there are the chickpea farmers Sarah Wallace has relationships with for the Good Bean.
A Thriving Market
Thrive Market has built its business model on this ethos of brands doing better. It’s no longer enough to just make a delicious or interesting product. In Sambazon’s case, here’s a brand that has protected 2.5 million acres of the Amazon over the last two decades by creating a plentiful source of ongoing income for local communities incentivized to keep the vital rainforest thriving, while also helping millions of consumers eat healthier.
It’s a poster brand for conscious commerce.
“When I talk to Wall Street investors I explain to them that it actually costs more to not do good,” says Lovelace. “There is a new generation of conscious companies that spend incrementally more upfront to have a positive impact in their supply chains, but actually have lower cost customer acquisition and loyalty as a result of inspiring and meeting consumers where they are,” he says.
“One of the trends that I find hope in, is that in the face of intense political and environmental dysfunction, consumers increasingly recognize the power they have.” Lovelace say companies that don’t meet this demand will become obsolete. “So while it might cost nominally more to do the right thing, if your business doesn’t survive to meet rapidly changing consumer behavior then what is the real cost?”
There’s also the issue of the “real cost” of goods. “One of the other structural problems with modern-day capitalism is that the products we buy don’t reflect the true costs of making and delivering those products to us,” Lovelace says. This problem is better known as subsidies—government programs, funded by taxpayer dollars—that artificially deflate the cost of goods. It’s nowhere more blatant than in meat and dairy production.
There’s also the misuse of finite resources for a single-time profit gain.
While Sambazon empowers açaí growers to keep the forest intact—it’s more valuable when kept alive and thriving and continually producing more açaí along with other crops—the outer edges of the Amazon and other forests across the globe are shrinking drastically. In Indonesia it’s for palm oil. In Central America, it’s for coffee. In Canada, it’s for toilet paper. And in Brazil, the Amazon is razed predominantly for cattle. Brazil is home to the second-largest cattle herd on the planet. JBS, the world’s largest meat producer is a Brazilian company now at the center of a lawsuit over the destruction of the Amazon by its beef suppliers.
“We need to refactor our accounting methods as consumers and businesses to think more broadly than just our own self interest,” says Lovelace. “If we do this at scale we can fundamentally shift capitalism from rampant extraction to positive and regenerative supply chains. Humans are so creative and powerful and when our hearts and minds are aligned, we are unstoppable.”
Sambazon, like the other brands in the film, is empowering its grower partners to care for their land and their communities. In two decades its built factories and schools and kept communities of the Amazon once in jeopardy of losing everything, free from the fear of destruction. But it’s not just bringing salvation to the rainforest; it’s also empowering consumers.
“Today, more consumers understand that we need to find a solution to help the planet,” says Ryan. “Açaí was a great starting point for a larger conversation that Americans are much more receptive to today in terms of organic agriculture, fair trade, and sustainability,” he says.
“We’re looking forward to finding new ways to create change for decades to come.”
Seeding Change is now streaming.