We spoke with Christopher Dawson, founder of Clearspring and a New Zealand native, about what led him to start his plant-based, organic Japanese food business here in London. His passion for organic foods and ensuring a sustainable future for all was apparent immediately! Enjoy the read — we guarantee you’ll learn something new along the way.

For starters, could you introduce yourself, the brand, what you sell, and how it started?

I’m Christopher Dawson, founder of Clearspring. Clearspring is a family business and for over 25 years we have been committed to pioneering authentic, plant-based Japanese specialities and Organic Fine Foods.

It all started back in 1972. I was born and raised in New Zealand and it was there, at the age of 19, that I came to a stark realisation. At the time the country had a population of just three million people but there were nearly 60 million sheep. If humans are at the top of the evolutionary pyramid, with the most developed digestive system, I questioned why we were “cultivating” and then slaughtering animals for human development and destroying the natural landscape in the process? It was also the time of the Vietnam war with a death toll equal to the population of New Zealand. I questioned as to how human slaughter can be a prerequisite for world peace.

There was something inherently wrong and an apparent gross misuse of nature. I wanted to learn more, so, in 1973, I spent a year visiting and working on organic farms in four different agricultural sectors in New Zealand. In 1974, I took the then 36-hour flight to the UK to continue my studies and understand organic farming and sustainability from an international viewpoint.

Then in 1979, I travelled to Japan to study their food culture and I discovered something fascinating. During the Edo period, or Tokugawa period, between 1603 and 1868 of self-imposed isolation, they had learnt how to sustainably cultivate foods both on the land and on the coastal seas. With this, the hospitality of the people, the food and culture, I decided to make Japan my home and spent the next 18 years there, helping to convert conventional farmers and food producers to organic.

Afterwards, I decided to move back to the UK and take what I had learnt from Japan and the products I had helped convert to organic status and bring them to a much wider international audience. Today, more than 25 years since I first started Clearspring in 1993, we have over 270 certified organic products, contract-produced by 88 food producers in 15 countries and exported to over 58 countries.

What is the guiding principle/philosophy behind the business?

Every week, at our Monday morning meeting, I remind the Clearspring team that our prime focus is to ‘constantly work and play to convert one more acre back to organic each day.’ Whether this is by supporting our producers or championing and promoting organic, biodynamic and sustainable foods to our shoppers.

This principle taps into our bigger mission, which is summed up by the Clearspring’s three visionary Ps:

  • Provide for future generations;
  • Protect the ecosystem and the world we live in; and
  • Promote traditional and sustainable foods with integrity.

Together with these 3 Ps, we make a promise to our customers that all our products are primarily organic, 100% vegan, non-GM, with no artificial additives, MSG, colourings, preservatives or added refined sugars.

How does your brand contribute to a sustainable future in food and agriculture?

Clearspring’s founding mission is to work for a sustainable future for all. Being 100% plant-based is our big contributor to this. Whilst we’re a judgement-free business, we believe that if everyone can simply increase the amount of plant-based foods they eat and reduce their daily meat in-take, as a collective effort, we can reduce our impact on the environment.

An Oxford University study, published in Science Magazine reports that meat and dairy production is responsible for 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, whilst the products themselves provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein levels around the world.

Clearspring is Organic Certified by the Soil Association, the UK’s leading certifier of organic. Unlike conventional products, organic certified products must go through a much more rigorous process and meet very high standards before they reach a retailer’s shelf and the consumer.

According to the Soil Association, being organic means working with nature and not against it. Some of these organic principles include radically lower levels of pesticides, no manufactured herbicides or artificial fertilisers, environmentally sustainable management of the land and the environment, enhancement of soil fertility, maintenance of water quality and maintenance of biodiversity. The latter encourages more wildlife and a better balance between predators and insects.

Your entire range is vegan — do you believe this is the way forward needed to feed a growing global population?

Absolutely, as I mentioned earlier. Most studies are now with us, whilst we have been advocating for this for decades.

The vegetarian diet in the 1970s was often the same plate without the meat; it was pretty uncreative. A friend suggested trying Japanese Miso Soup. I tasted it and thought — ah, now I can stay vegetarian. I did a quick calculation: if you take 100kg of soya beans to make miso, you will get 20,000 bowls of miso soup. However, if you take the same 100kg of soya beans, you will get just one hundred 10g servings of meat. I saw “the future” for miso in the Western world and my path for life was decided!

What I should add however is that, with the vegan diet, understanding essential nutrition is critical. Whilst there has been an explosion of pseudo-healthy and quick-fix non-organic vegan food and drink on the market, we’ve stuck to our guiding principles of offering wholesome plant-based organic products, using premium quality ingredients and packed with as much nutritional value as possible.

What is the biggest sustainability challenge your brand is facing?

Getting consumers to “buy into” organics. Right now, organic food consumption in the UK is at just 1.6%. Germany is at 5%, Denmark 11.5%. Also, the UK has dropped to ninth in global sales of organic. Price is probably a major consideration. If only more consumers switched to organic it would trigger a compounding result, prompting more farmers and producers to economically switch to organic. The economies of scale will bring down the price. Raising awareness of the hidden environmental cost of non-organic food production is of such prime importance.

Packaging is a very big focus for us and it is also quite a challenge — balancing food safety and protection with the challenge of making packaging more sustainable. However, we are certainly taking this challenge head-on with gusto!

As part of our commitment to sustainability, we are following the Soil Association’s lead and aligning our packaging strategy with the UK Plastics Pact. The Pact is an ambitious and collaborative initiative led by WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme), which has set

bold targets to make a massive impact on the amount of plastic used in packaging by 2025.

Some of the key targets include:

  • 100% of plastic packaging used should be reusable, recyclable or compostable;
  • 70% of plastic packaging should be effectively recycled or composted;
  • 30% average recycled content across all plastic packaging; and
  • Action should be taken to eliminate problematic or unnecessary single-use packaging items through redesign, innovation or alternative (reuse) delivery models.

We have already made some impactful and innovative packaging upgrades. The entire Clearspring Organic Japanese Tea Bag range has received a packaging refresh. As well as a bright and refreshed new design-look the packaging is entirely sustainable. The tea bags are compostable and non-GM, the string is made of organic cotton and the outer carton is made of recyclable FSC certified paperboard and printed using vegetable-based ink.

Our new Organic Atlantic Sea Vegetables range is also 100% sustainable. Not only is it sustainably sourced, but the outer carton is 100% recyclable and the inner pouch is made from home-compostable cellulose from wood pulp, which comes from carefully managed plantations.

They’ll join our existing ranges in glass jars and tins which are fully recyclable in most areas of the UK: Coconut Specialities (Coconut Water, Coconut Milk and Coconut Oil), Pasta Sauces and Passata, Bio Kitchen Vegetables, Pulses and Peanut Butter, Sea Salt, Fruit Spreads, Amazake Desserts & Malt Syrups.

We still have a long way to go and have exciting packaging updates to announce later this year.

Wherefrom is building a community of conscious consumers, what is something you do, as an individual, to lead by example in the realm of sustainable consumption?

Leading by example is a significant part of my individual commitment to sustainability. I constantly shop organic and have had a plant-based diet since 1972. I have encouraged my family to follow too. Advocating for organic is also part of that mission, aiming to constantly convert more acres of land back to organic.