Barbara Ward remembers the early ’70s as a young mother in her New York City kitchen, making healthy snacks from scratch for her toddler and tending to the alfalfa sprouts in the window box. “I didn’t go to Woodstock, but I sure wanted to go,” she sighs. The environmental movement, social justice, and the Vietnam War were constant topics of discussion among her friends. “We were very idealistic,” she says.
Thirty years on, some would say that hippies have gone the way of Nehru jackets. But while true counterculture believers such as Ward, now a nurse in Florida, have evolved and likely made a few nods to pragmatism, they are still here and still trying to make the world a better place. It wasn’t, after all, about the way they looked or the music they listened to or the drugs they took. It was about acting from the heart and loving each other and the planet.
In practice, this ethos meant living in harmony with four values in particular—social responsibility, green consciousness, natural medicine, and vegetarian and organic foods. As evidenced by Ward’s cupboards, stocked with herbs, vitamins, essential oils, and natural foods, the hippies’ value-based lifestyle created demand for new products and solutions—demand that was often met with innovations by fellow hippies-turned-enlightened entrepreneurs.
On every trip you take through your natural products store, you’ll recognize scores of their message-driven products. Here are some of their stories.
Steve Demos: The revolution was won—economically
Hitchhiking through India in the early ’70s, Steve Demos, now 55, experienced firsthand the plight of protein malnutrition in an overpopulated land. He returned to the United States and started selling tofu to vegetarians, founding White Wave in 1977. By 1996, his tasty Silk soy milk had hit the shelves, forever changing public perceptions of soy. Today, 97 percent of mainstream U.S. supermarkets sell Silk. Demos left White Wave in March 2005.
Q. As a shorthand way of establishing your “hippie roots,” tell us where you were in ’72.
A. In India.
Q. Whatever happened to the hippies?
A. Hippies don’t fade away; they turn into hummies, which are basically hippies under the influence of money. And now we’re all out there trying to do the same thing we started out trying to do, which is to change the world.
Q. So you don’t have to change the world politically?
A. Politics is not the dominant power. The dominant power is economics.
Q. The message on Silk containers preaches organic healthiness, wind power, and social justice. Why is it more than just a drink in a box?
A. We live our passions and our lifestyle and our choices day in and day out, and at White Wave we were trying to demonstrate that wholeness through our products. We called it “right livelihood.” We wanted to be environmentally sensitive; we wanted to be socially responsible; we wanted these products to be projections of what we wanted to be proud of. That’s right livelihood.
Q. What happened that clicked on the lightbulb in your head and told you, “Hey, this is the way to live”?
A. I graduated from college and hitchhiked from Istanbul to India and stayed there on and off for three or four years. My epiphany came through studying Buddhism and the concept of right livelihood. I left India saying, My challenge will be to demonstrate right livelihood through capitalism. I happened to choose soy as the vehicle through which I would demonstrate this. Soy was compatible with nonviolence, positive contribution, eating lower on the food chain, and being environmentally sensitive. It fit all the criteria that allowed me to say, This is the right choice for how to make my living.
Mark Blumenthal: 5 degrees of separation
A true back-to-the-lander, Mark Blumenthal, 58, foraged for wild herbs while living on a New Mexico commune for two years. He has marketed herbs and botanical-infused beverages and is today an herb advocate, in his roles as executive director of the American Botanical Council and editor of HerbalGram.
Q. Where were you in ’72?
A. Working the McGovern campaign in Texas.
Q. Which hippie ideal is most alive to you today?
A. Most of them. Natural medicine is the most obviously congruent value to herbal medicine. Another would be organic and natural foods. When I first started using natural foods in 1968, you could not find whole-wheat bread or yogurt in a grocery store; you had to go to a health food store.
Q. What are the roots of your ideals?
A. Living on a commune galvanized my commitment to Mother Earth, to recycling and composting, to understanding the value and the scarcity of natural resources. Living on that commune gave me a sense of a direct connection to Earth in a way that I’d never had before.
Q. How did you progress from having an interest in herbs to going commercial?
A. I got into herbs in 1968, when I became a vegetarian as a reaction against the killing in the Vietnam War. After living on the commune, I came back to Austin and ran into a guy selling ginseng roots out of the trunk of his car. I was one of the few who knew what a ginseng root was back then and what its potential value was. One thing led to another: We started a small wholesale business and I stayed with it. I made Hot Cha Cha!, the first salsa in the natural foods market. In Texas, I bottled Ginseng Rush, which became a famous drink in the ’80s. I was one of the founders of the now-defunct Herb Trade Association and I started publishing Herb News, the seminal basis for HerbalGram.
Q. How did the hippies change the world, after all?
A. The ultimate act of revolution is to change yourself. Maybe it’s just a change in a few degrees from your normal course, but the longer you go down that 5-degree different course compared to the baseline where you were going, that’s the true, lasting, durable, and deep change.
Michael Besancon: The store is the message
In the summer of ’70, 24-year-old Michael Besancon and a buddy were camping in the mountains of Northern California when they hitched a ride from a co-op manager who was heading to a meeting of merchants. Besancon thought the idea sounded interesting, and three weeks later, he cofounded a tiny Los Angeles store, Follow Your Heart. Today he is southern Pacific regional president of Whole Foods Market.
Q. Where were you in ’72?
A. Making avocado sandwiches at the Heart.
Q. What were you trying to create when you opened Follow Your Heart?
A. The intention was to change the world. The one area we could bring that about, without major confrontation with the powers that be, was on the food side.
Q. How important was diet to the hippie agenda?
A. Eating a natural diet was incredibly important. The fact is, we’ve been vindicated. There were problems in the agricultural system and they were getting worse; there were diet-related diseases and they were getting worse; and the environment was going to heck in a handbasket. There are just more people today who are buying into that.
Q. Do today’s natural foods chains carry the DNA of co-ops from the ’70s?
A. Absolutely. Today’s store is an evolution from “the day.” There are still lots of stores that are time capsules—you can walk in, and unless somebody tells you the date, you won’t know what year it is. And that’s really cool.
Q. As a society, are we relegated to two food systems: pure or poisoned?
A. I think there is a serious divide. Hippies are no longer considered to be kooks; there’s a general acceptance in the mainstream that organic is better for people and the planet. The most insidious thing facing us today is genetically modified organisms and what that portends for food safety as well as food availability. When you have the patenting of seeds and the disappearance of heirloom varieties, you end up with two or three strains of corn or soybeans instead of dozens of what might have been.
Todd Runestad is a writer embracing the hippie vibe in Boulder, Colorado.