By Jeff Harder
Clif Bar’s headquarters promotes sustainability and wellness for its employees.
Step into Clif Bar and Company’s headquarters, look up, and the bikes and kayaks dangling from the ceiling are among the quirky clues that suggest the leading energy bar maker is not content to leave the outdoors outside. Daylight beams through floor-to-ceiling walls of windows and changing colors fall onto workers spread across the open floor plan. A quartet of open-air atrium gardens offers a genuine slice of nature inside the building’s 115,000-sq-ft footprint. Step into one of the conference rooms built from reclaimed wood and the atmosphere feels a little like you have arrived at a trailhead.
As the leaders of a family- and employee-owned company, Gary Erickson, along with his wife, Kit Crawford, developed an innovative business model that integrates social and environmental responsibility into every area of the business.
Clif Bar’s offices on 66th Street in Emeryville, California, are more than a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum testament to a sustainability commitment that began more than 15 years ago. It is a green building rich in biophilic design elements that have made for a happier and healthier workforce while the company has simultaneously grown into one of the biggest brands in the market.
Left: Located in Emeryville, Clif Bar’s new headquarters were designed by ZGF Architects. Right: Bill Browning is a partner at the sustainability consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green and an expert in biophilic design.
Top: Clif Bar’s director of environmental stewardship Elysa Hammond. Below: The headquarters has a rock wall in its gym.
Working and playing outside is a cornerstone of Clif Bar’s identity. Founder Gary Erickson famously conjured the idea for a better-tasting energy bar during a 175-mile bike ride, and the bars quickly became bestsellers among cyclists, climbers, and the rest of the outdoors crowd after their introduction in 1992. But the company’s first serious sustainability pledge came after an uncertain time, when Clif Bar found itself among the many natural food brands targeted for corporate consolidation. Erickson rejected a buyout offer, and soon after, called old friend and ecologist Elysa Hammond to help the privately owned company make its products organic. “In that process, we realized we needed a holistic sustainability program—a systems approach that looks at the connections between food and agriculture, climate, energy, and natural resources,” says Hammond, now Clif Bar’s director of environmental stewardship. “Plenty of other companies have sustainability programs, solar arrays, and so on, but we made a commitment to organic agriculture as the starting point and moved forward from there.”
Clif Bar first announced its sustainability commitment on Earth Day 2001 and deployed sweeping measures across every facet of its business—from purchasing more than 630 million pounds of organic ingredients and earning organic certification for the majority of its products, to financing wind farms that offset the company’s carbon footprint and offering $6,500 toward the purchase of a hybrid vehicle (among other incentives) to encourage alternative modes of commuting. Along the way, publications from Fortune to Outside endorsed Clif Bar as one of the best places to work.
By 2010, that happy workforce had relocated from its original headquarters in Berkeley into its new home in Emeryville. Designed by ZGF Architects and housed within a repurposed World War II–era manufacturing plant, the two-story building is lined with an abundance of wood that is either salvaged from old barns and railroad ties or harvested from sustainable forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. A smart solar array provides about 80 percent of the building’s electricity, while a separate solar thermal system covers 70 percent of its hot water needs. Repurposed sports equipment abounds—skis, snowboards, and surfboards are refashioned as artwork, and logo-bearing pieces of bike frames are repurposed as door handles. An onsite café, Kali’s Kitchen, serves an ever-changing menu of food made largely from locally sourced organic ingredients. The building also includes other amenities for its 410 employees, like a childcare center, a full gym with a yoga room and rock climbing wall (where employees are paid to exercise 30 minutes a day), and an area for company-subsidized massages. On any given day, you will find at least a dozen dogs roaming the floor.
In 2012, the headquarters became the first LEED Platinum building in Emeryville. “Clif Bar is all about health, performance, and a connection with nature,” says Brenden McEneaney, director of USGBC Northern California. “It’s great to see how they embody those values by providing a healthy, productive space for their workers that has a lighter environmental footprint through LEED Platinum design.”
The building is also rich in biophilic design elements that conjure the outdoors to foster a more productive, content workforce. “For Clif Bar, it was a really natural fit because the connection to nature is a very strong part of their brand identity and corporate culture,” says Bill Browning, partner at the sustainability consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green and an expert in biophilic design. “It’s an expression of who they are, but it then has direct benefits for the health, well-being, and happiness of all the people who work there.” Low partitions lend the open floor plan a quality called prospect—an unimpeded view across the natural-light-soaked space—and allow workers’ screen-addled eyes to relax. The windows provide occasional glimpses of birds and wildlife, views that have restorative effects on focus and creativity. Plantings in the atriums and throughout the office evoke even more of the great outdoors.
Now, Clif Bar is finding ways of bringing the restorative power of nature to the up-to-code sterility of its bakery under construction in Twin Falls, Idaho. When it came time for Clif Bar to build its first bakery from the ground up, the company approached Browning to expand on its initial green design by adding biophilic elements into a 275,000-sq-ft space that was much more strictly regulated. Keeping a sterile environment, for example, means prohibiting plants, wood, and other natural materials in the kitchen, and the 3-shift, 24-hour-a-day nature of operations means the benefits that come with enhancing daylight disappear when the sun goes down. Nonetheless, Browning says, “Even in a sterile white box, there are still things you can do to introduce [a] connection to nature.”
That approach likely means doubling down on the same sorts of biophilic features evidenced in the common areas and break rooms of Clif Bar’s headquarters: a rock wall that mimics the strata of Idaho’s local geology, an outdoor community garden, and an outdoor walking path. “There will be a lot of these features that are very similar to what they’ve done at their headquarters, but almost on overdrive to compensate for what you can’t do within the sterile space,” Browning says.
Within the bakery itself, along with adding windows so workers can see the landscape outside, there are tentative plans to project a changing lineup of images shared on Clif Bar’s social media pages onto the bakery’s blank white walls. “It could be the Grand Canyon, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, biking in a forest, or on a kayak paddling through some other amazing, beautiful place,” Browning says, noting that data shows that simply looking at a picture of nature has many of the same psychological and physiological benefits as being in nature, like lowering heart rate and blood pressure. “The idea is that you have a view of nature inside the space.”
While it’s hard to attribute Clif Bar’s low turnover and generally buoyant disposition solely to natural light, or the luxury of stepping into an open-air atrium to take a phone call, those biophilic elements have an aggregate effect as part of a culture that puts sustainability at the forefront. Hammond relays an anecdote: “One woman [who works in Emeryville] said, ‘At the end of the workday, I used to always feel exhausted. But here, I don’t feel that—I feel refreshed.’” Maybe it is because it felt like she’d been outside all day.