In the Hot Seat: Chris Mann


Guayakí Yerba Mate could be your cup of tea.

In 1996, five men fresh out of college believed that they could help to re-forest the South American rainforest and positively effect the indigenous people by drinking tea. Crazy? Maybe not. Fourteen years later, Guayakí Yerba Mate has a core team of 28 flip-flop wearing, life-loving, idealists that are making a difference one sip at a time. Guayaki grows its products sustainably within the South America’s Atlantic rainforest and currently sustains and/or restores nearly 20,000 acres of rainforest, 34 indigenous families and over 300 bird and mammal species. What was nothing more than a crazy idea back in 1996 is now a full-blown reality.

Chris Mann is one of the five seeding founders and has been dubbed the “Chairman of the Gourd” of Guayakí Yerba Mate. Chris earned a BA in Economics from Harvard University, but quickly realized that economists often overlooked sustaining the environment and protecting people. Through his experience with Guayakí, and previously with Natural Flavors, a 100 percent organic, vegan restaurant that employed 25 people and 60 local farmers, Chris is finding that by recognizing common purpose, seemingly disparate groups can integrate social justice, environmental restoration and economic success.

Chris takes a break from sippin’ the good stuff to sit In The Hot Seat for Tonic:

What’s your mantra?

A motto I live by is “May you live all the days of your life,” a quote from Jonathan Swift. It reminds me that life truly is a gift. When I live in that reality, I feel alive, inspired and compelled to contribute my energy towards creating a beneficial presence. Getting sidetracked by fear drives complacency and withdrawal. It happens to us all. For me it’s a matter of how quickly can I recognize that I am stuck and get past it. If we are feeling low, it is very difficult to contribute to something bigger than ourselves, but when we truly feel alive that is all we want to do!

How are your business goals tied to your mission?

Guayakí’s mission in itself a business goal – to sustain and restore 200,000 acres of South American Atlantic rainforest and provide 1,000 living wage jobs. This mission is funded by the sustainable harvest of yerba mate beneath the South American Atlantic rainforest canopy. In order to accomplish our mission, we will need sales of approximately $125 million. The amount of forest we restore and living-wage jobs we create are directly proportional to the amount of shade-grown organic yerba mate we sell. That is the essence of Market-Driven Restoration.

What is the CSR program implemented in your company that you are most proud of?

Our entire business model is a CSR program. We call our model Market-Driven Restoration, whereby we internalize the environmental and social costs of our products. This ‘true cost’ enables our customers to vote with their dollars. In turn, we invest in growers who are committed to high quality, integrity and restoration. By purchasing Guayakí’s organic and fair trade certified yerba mate, our customers become a driving force for rainforest restoration and the creation of living wage jobs.

This model of Market-Driven Restoration acknowledges that we are all in this together and we must all work and play together in order to create solutions. We cannot separate east and west, north and south and we cannot separate social justice and cultural diversity from ecological restoration. Specifically, we pay two to three times the market price for our yerba mate, and in turn, the growers we work with adopt a work plan for improving the diversity of their rainforest and engage in life-affirming relationships with the people they directly work with-whether they are family members, cooperative members or migrant harvesters.

One way that we have measured the success of this program is by conducting a life-cycle study on our loose-leaf yerba mate products. This study demonstrated that the amount of carbon sequestered by the rainforests in which it grows is twice the amount of carbon that is emitted through the harvesting, processing, packaging and transportation. In other words, Guayaki Yerba Mate was shown to be carbon-subtracting – not just carbon-neutral, but carbon-subtracting. The subtraction does not result from offsetting, but is embedded in the entire Market-Driven Restoration business model. To top it off, the packaging of this product is all biodegradable and home compostable which means that it is one of the most sustainable consumer products available on the market. This is incredibly exciting because it demonstrates that it can be done and we are all learning that it must be done.

What area of CSR do you still think your company can improve in and what are the steps you will take to make that change?

The main area for us to improve in is in our reporting. We are doing amazing work on many fronts, but we do not have a consistent formal reporting program. As a result, our efforts are not as coordinated as they could be and not everyone is aware of the successes we have had and the challenges we face. The reporting is vitally important because it serves as a platform for sharing the information with our stakeholders and engaging in more direct dialogues around the issues so we can more effectively develop and implement best practices at Guayaki and inspire others to implement the same. Ultimately, we face tremendous challenges in implementing the massive environmental and social justice programs that we all need to engage in and clear communication, transparency and reporting are crucial to expanding these programs quickly and deeply.

Where do you see your company in 5 years?

In ten years we will have sustained and restored at least 200,000 acres of rainforest and provided at least 1,000 living-wage jobs. In 5 years we will be well on our way to accomplishing these goals. What will this look like? In the marketplace, our products will be distributed almost everywhere that beverages are sold and Guayaki will be recognized as a leader in creating healthy products that inspire people to vote with their dollars for products and services that sustain and restore degraded ecosystems and promote social justice. We plan to stay on the cutting edge of restorative business development and believe that five years from now, the work that we are doing now will be commonplace in all businesses. So we envision a constant cycle of innovation and product improvement. Can we help change the conversation from minimizing the bad to maximizing the good?

Read more Dollars & Sense.

Editor’s note: Article by Nadia Hosni. Originally published by our friends at Tonic is a digital media company and news source dedicated to promoting the good that happens each day around the world. Tonic tells the stories of people and organizations who are working to make a difference, by inspiring good in themselves and others. Be sure to visit them and say hi, and follow Tonic on Twitter, too!


Image: juanpol