Green Entrepreneur Joar Opheim Talks About Balancing Values with Profits


Growing out of his own search for quality, sustainably-source fish oils, green entrepreneur Joar Opheim founded Nordic Naturals, a green business with a mission: to produce the purest, healthiest fish oils without further damaging the planet in order to correct omega-3 insufficiency worldwide, a major concern among people who live on the typical Western diet.

After nearly 15 years, Nordic Naturals is profitable, not only from a financial standpoint, but also in terms of knowing that they improve health and nutrition around the world. Growing even throughout the financial recession, Nordic Naturals is a very green example of how to balance profits with values.

Where did the idea for Nordic Naturals come from and how did you get started?

Nordic Naturals was founded in 1995 to meet a growing need in the United States for high quality fish oil products.  Back then, people knew much less about the benefits of omegas-3s for health, so there really wasn’t the scientific consensus around the benefits of fish oil that there is today. Growing up in Norway I never knew anyone who didn’t take fish oil for their health, even if the science behind it was limited.

When I came to the US in the late 80’s, I was taking fish oil to manage old gymnastic injuries because the omega-3s in fish oil have strong anti-inflammatory properties. I found it difficult to find good fish oil here, which gave me the idea to start a company exclusively devoted to high quality fish oil. As the science behind omega-3 fish oil grows, Nordic Naturals innovates in line with these findings. Because of this, my initial motivation to provide the best fish oil possible remains true today.

What makes Nordic Naturals stand out as a more sustainable brand of fish oil?

Sustainability is a core part of how we’ve chosen to develop as a company. When you think about it, good stewardship of the natural environment is as important to us as a company as it is to the people who use our products, because we rely on renewable resources for the success of our company. Problems like overfishing and marine pollution affect us directly. With this in mind, we make sustainability a top priority.

This means a number of things in practice. One hundred percent of our fish are sourced in line with the Norwegian fisheries management system, which strictly enforces sustainable quotas, catch sizes, etc.  All species come from healthy stocks—none of them are overfished—and all of our fish are wild caught, with the entire fish used for human or animal consumption.

We source from three areas: the Norwegian Sea for Arctic cod (Skrei), Alaska’s Cook Inlet for salmon and the South Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Peru for sardines and anchovies. In each case we’ve established relationships with local fishermen to make sure we can pay fair wages for very fresh fish that come from healthy fisheries.

What kind of testing did you have to do to ensure you were producing a healthy product?

Everything we do at Nordic Naturals is based on science because the details matter for producing a top quality product. We’re fortunate to have partnered with real experts in the field of omega nutrition. These include health practitioners, sports and nutrition experts, and research scientists. These partnerships help us stay on the leading edge of the science so that we can make the best possible products.

Our products are consistently used in research studies around the world. And we have completed our own studies as well, with 14 published in scientific journals and 30 more underway. In terms of testing, we believe that it is our responsibility to provide products that are pure, fresh and effective, which is why we third-party test every batch of our products for oxidation levels, heavy metals, and environmental toxins.  We provide customers with certificates of analyses upon request.

How do you ensure your fish are not contaminated with toxins, etc?

Like other animals, fish accumulate elements of their prey and habitat in their bodies. As fish move up the food chain they are more likely to contain higher levels of impurities and heavy metals. This is why purifying fish oil is essential to making safe and effective supplements, so we pay very close attention to eliminating toxins during production.

A good example of this is in our newest product, Kenai Wild™ Alaskan Salmon Oil. After purification, levels of residual arsenic are 40 times lower than those of other brands. That’s a huge difference due to our attention to purification.

You’re certified with the Monterey Bay Area Green Business Program – what kinds of systems and principles do you have to have in place to get such a certification?

The Monterey Bay Area Green Business certification is a regional recognition for businesses that are leaders in terms of resource conservation, waste reduction, and pollution prevention. We’re one of about a hundred or so businesses in Santa Cruz County to hold this recognition. For Nordic Naturals, this initially meant practices like reduced packaging of our products, using agri-based inks and recycled materials, environmentally friendly cleaners, this sort of thing.

But with our new Watsonville, CA headquarters that opened in February, we’ve taken it to another level. The new building is designed for LEED® Gold Certification, so it performs very well when it comes to energy conservation and environmental design. Once this certification is complete, our headquarters will be the county’s first newly constructed building by a private company to achieve this designation. With our interest in being sustainable, LEED was a natural progression for us.

As the largest supplier of omega-3 fish oils, what kind of influence do you have in the industry and what are you doing with it?

We’re fortunate to be in a position to lead by example in areas that matter most, which are purity, freshness, efficacy, taste, and sustainability. Further, the molecular form of fish oil is critically important. All of our products are over 90% true triglycerides. Studies show that the triglyceride form is up to 70% more absorbable than the synthetic ethyl ester form. You would be surprised at how many brands overlook these details.

As we learn more about the science behind omegas, we innovate accordingly to continue making industry-leading products. This approach also extends to our business practices so that we are a responsible employer that people are happy to have in the community. As people take notice of our business ethic, it becomes a standard that customers expect, which in turn moves the fish oil industry in a positive direction.

Does making an environmentally sustainable product mean you have to charge more at the till?

No. Our products are competitively priced even with our focus on sustainability. People care deeply about the health of the environment and they want to support companies that share their concerns. By highlighting Nordic Naturals’ focus on sustainability we hope to encourage more people to adopt similar practices.

What methods do you use to make your sustainable fish oils stand out in comparison to less green brands?

A lot of our success comes from our comprehensive education initiatives. We travel the globe educating on the importance of omega-3s and sustainable sourcing. In turn we empower our customers to make informed decisions.  This information can also be found in our educational brochures and on our website planetnordic.com. The website has some great information about our fishing practices, the new headquarters and also our approach to corporate social responsibility, including some of the philanthropic projects we support.

Are there any mistakes that you made on this entrepreneurial journey that you would like to share with other green entrepreneurs?
Everyone makes mistakes. They key is to only make the mistake once.

What advice would you have for other aspiring green and social entrepreneurs?

Always put values before profit.

This post was written by:

Maryruth Belsey Priebe

Maryruth has been seeking the keys to environmental justice - both at home and at work - for over a decade. Growing up adjacent to wild spaces, Maryruth developed a healthy respect (and whimsical appreciation) for things non-human, but her practical mind constantly draws her down to earth to ponder tangible solutions to complex eco-problems.

With interests that range from green living to green business, sustainable building designs to organic gardening practices, ecosystem restoration to environmental health, Maryruth has been exploring and writing about earth-matters for most of her life. Of special interest is the subject of ecopsychology and the role the natural world plays in the long-term health and well-being of humanity. You can learn more about Maryruth's work at www.JadeCreative.ca.


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