‘B Corps are not fluffy’: Graze’s CEO on growing a business ethically

Joanna Allen wants Graze to become the ‘most valuable snacking business’ without compromising its ethics through a focus on people, planet and profit

230918 Joanna Allen Graze

Tattoos and skateboarding are perhaps not the usual topics of conversation during a CEO interview, but Joanna Allen was keen to convey to the Graze team that she was more than a corporate suit flown in from its new owner when she took on the role leading the business after it was acquired by Unilever a year earlier.

“I was very conscious that I would be perceived as someone coming in from a corporate background,” she says, having spent five years at Unilever managing the global brands for Hellman’s and Sure deodorant. “I definitely wanted people to feel like I was a human being and I respected the culture of Graze.” 

That meant showing off her ink, her husband’s career as a pro skateboarder and talking as much about her kids as her career. It worked: Allen joined Graze at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and set about, in her words, transforming the business from a “gangly teenager” to a “slightly more mature 20-something”.

How Graze moved beyond subscriptions

The company had already come a long way since it was founded in 2007. Graze launched with the then-innovative premise to post customisable boxes of nutritious snacks – such as Marmite-coated peanuts or cocoa and orange flapjacks – direct to consumers. It was a perfectly-timed pitch as consumers looked for alternatives to high-calorie, processed treats. The company soon added new product lines and started selling through retailers. 

Still, Graze’s revenue of £44.5m in 2021 (the last year accounts are available) was tiny compared to the brands Allen had worked on at Unilever and, before that, Coca-Cola. But she says the transition was smoother than she expected. 

We need to react to emerging channels all the time, which makes this a really exciting business to run

“The premise that I have always held on to is: are you solving a genuine consumer need? If so, it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about a business that’s €1bn or one the size of Graze.”

Over the past three years, she has focused on expanding the company’s commercial side. Today, direct-to-consumer deliveries are just 20% of Graze’s sales, with the rest coming from supermarkets, online or through Amazon. Recently, the team has been considering how to work with businesses that want to offer healthy perks to staff returning to the office.

“Ultimately, snacking is meeting an impulse need; in order to serve that need you have to be available in all places,” Allen says. “We look at emerging channels and we need to react, to make sure that we’ve got a proposition that’s relevant for them. That changes all the time, which makes this a really exciting business to run.”

There might be a while to go to achieve its mission of becoming “the most valuable snacking company”, though. Graze reported an operating loss of £5.3m in 2021 and has not turned a profit since 2018. An attempt to expand into the US appears to have been abandoned. However, with Unilever’s backing, there appears to be little sign of the company running out of road soon.

Why B Corps should be commercially driven 

Despite her focus on growth, Allen says one of the most rewarding aspects of the job was steering Graze through the final stages of becoming a B Corp, a status it achieved in 2021. Not only has the process helped transform the business for the better, she says, it has helped it attract talent and also opened up conversations with suppliers and customers keen to do business with purpose-led companies.

If B Corp is going to be successful, it will be because it delivers for people, planet and profit 

Unilever now owns 11 B Corps worldwide, including its Australia and New Zealand division, which was accredited last year. The scheme has been criticised for certifying too many subsidiaries of multinational companies, such as Innocent (owned by Coca-Cola) and Danone UK.

However, Allen believes there is no contradiction between being part of a corporation and being socially and environmentally responsible. “There can be a misconception that B Corps are fluffy organisations that are not commercially driven. Actually, if B Corp is going to be successful, it will be because it delivers for people, planet and profit,” she says.

“I don’t think anyone should feel uncomfortable talking about the fact that we want to be able to generate a profit as part of that multi-stakeholder model. That has been a journey I’ve taken the Graze business on to make sure that people understand that it’s not a compromise.”

She adds: “There are some times when you have to make trade-offs but what’s amazing is when you find those incentives that enable you to do all of those things positively.”

For instance, Allen points to a recent redesign of the packaging for Graze’s savoury products. The new material it used was not only more recyclable, it was cheaper to produce and stood out more on the shelf. In light of inflation, the team also reviewed its supply chain. They found moving Graze’s bakery to its main manufacturing site reduced both road miles and costs.

Driving ethical UK business forward

Allen’s interest in ethical business goes beyond her day job. She is a keen advocate for better workplace inclusion, inspired by her disabled son and her own experience as a female leader.

In addition, she’s a leading voice in the Better Business Act coalition, speaking on its behalf to a parliamentary committee last year. The campaign, supported by more than 2,000 UK companies, is seeking to change company law to remove a provision which states that a director’s responsibility should be primarily to shareholders.

“In layman’s terms, it says that you’re not actually fulfilling your director duties, if you don’t put profit ahead of everything else. We believe that model is outdated.”

Allen says there has been “really positive” cross-party support for the campaign. 

“We believe this is an opportunity to attract investment into the UK. Funds that are securing investment for ESG initiatives are attracting more investment than others…. Businesses that are purpose-driven are typically also the businesses that are growing revenue ahead of the market anyway,” she argues. 

“So to some extent, we’re just encouraging the tide that is already turning.”

Of course, many would argue the picture is more complex than that - companies with high ESG ratings have been found to pollute just as much as those with bad scores, while the UK gambling industry raked in billions last year. But if Graze pulls off its quest for snacking ubiquity, it might well leave the world a healthier place.