Step Up with the Sustainable Herbs Program

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In today’s world, we’ve lost the link to the supply chain of our purchases. We struggle to track down the full story of the products we see lining store shelves, and we’re all guilty of occasionally forgetting that the bounty in the produce aisle was once part of the soil. This disconnect from the supply chain makes it possible for entire industries to escape accountability regarding social and environmental sustainability.

A desire to mend this disconnect was the inspiration for the Sustainable Herbs Program, an organization that focuses on harmonizing the philosophy of herbal medicine with the realities of large-scale production, to uncover solutions that improve the system for all parties involved. 

Problems with the Conventional Herb Industry

As interest in the medicinal potential of plants has increased in recent decades, market demand has picked up the pace. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 80 percent of the world’s population use plants for medicine, and annual sales in the global botanical industry now total almost $100 billion.

Our collective use of medicinal plant material is taking a toll on the world’s finite supply, and thousands of producers are finding shortcuts in the cultivation process to maximize their profits. Incorrect species identification, unscrupulous collecting habits, and even intentionally blending herbs with lower-grade material to bulk up the supply have always been common within the industry. Even the herbal products that are properly grown, harvested, and preserved can still be compromised during the storage stage, as plant materials are commonly stored, uncovered, in warehouses worldwide, where they’re contaminated by dust, rodents, bits of metal, and cigarette butts. Sometimes, herbs languish in these spaces for months or years before they’re sold, which further degrades their condition.

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Minor details make a difference in the quality of herbal products, including whether workers wear insect repellent during harvesting, whether the collection bags are new or reused, and whether the plant material was left exposed to the elements for several days before going into storage. But paying attention to these steps in the supply chain costs money, and U.S. consumers aren’t always willing to foot the bill. This means that America-based herbal companies buying plant material on an open market often purchase what the rest of the world has rejected, and these purchases often translate into lower-quality final products.

While consumers are starting to question the origins of their food before it lands on their plates, the big players in the world of herbal plants have benefited from a relative lack of attention to their practices. Even those who want to dig deeper are often hindered by data gaps and a shortage of accurate records.

Regulation might seem to be the solution for these quality concerns, but the nature of the botanical industry makes this problematic. Most large-scale herb buyers have relationships with multiple parties within the supply chain, and some buy and sell hundreds of different plant species from dozens of regions around the world. The pressure to stay organized causes many companies to buy through consolidators and wholesalers who purchased their products on the open market, leaving little way to trace them back to their sources.

Bridging the Knowledge Gap

Some herb businesses are challenging this trend and placing the focus on better herb production throughout every step of the supply chain. The Sustainable Herbs Program was developed to foster an important movement that supports the use of high-quality herbal remedies that are produced with the clear intentions of achieving both sustainable and ethical sourcing.

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While the term “sustainable” can be an overused buzzword, the Sustainable Herbs Program gives it a meaningful explanation: The herb industry should prioritize producing botanical products in ways that sustain both human and environmental health. Botanical products should also be effective, affordable, and safe, and they must be harvested in ways that prioritize and preserve biological diversity. At the same time, the herb industry needs to support the people within it by providing them with living wages.

Origins of the Sustainable Herbs Program

The initial inspiration for the Sustainable Herbs Program began when founder Ann Armbrecht developed a passion for herbal medicine. Following research in Arun Valley, Nepal, on the relationship between villagers and the environment, Armbrecht studied herbal medicine with herbalist Rosemary Gladstar at Sage Mountain. She found a similarity between Gladstar’s herbal studies and her own encounters in Nepal. Both drew on thoughtful and sacred interactions with the environment, emphasizing relationship instead of ownership, and understanding the importance of healing through spiritual and cultural dimensions.

As Armbrecht dove deeper into the world of herbalism, she started to uncover the complexities and contradictions of the herbal industry, especially when it came to the business of supplying consumers on a mass scale. She feared that the aspects that drew her into herbalism were also what was making the industry suffer: As more people created a demand for herbal products, the threat of exploiting the people and environments along this delicate supply chain grew. To help create awareness of this complex industry to consumers, and to celebrate the heart of what makes herbalism sacred and special, Armbrecht co-produced the film, Numen, with the hope that consumers would grow more thoughtful about how and where they acquire their plant medicine.

Photo by Adobe Stock/Scott Griessel

Armbrecht did encounter negative and unsustainable practices along the herb supply chain during her filming, but she also discovered that many companies were taking steps toward more sustainable practices. Though these businesses were far from perfect, their commitment to monitoring the externalities of the industry made them models for others to follow. By spending time with the decision-makers within these companies, Armbrecht witnessed firsthand their commitment to using quality seeds and tackling the sustainability problems that were becoming more apparent. This gave her a framework to draw attention to the methodologies that worked, so other companies could replicate them.

Building off these findings, Armbrecht started a Kickstarter campaign in February of 2016 for what was then known as the Sustainable Herbs Project. With donations that averaged $35, more than 900 funders donated $65,000 to the campaign. The project formed a partnership with the American Botanical Council in the spring of 2018, and it was renamed the Sustainable Herbs Program.

What the Program Offers

The Sustainable Herbs Program manages a website dedicated to educating consumers about the standard supply chain for herbal products, the current problems within it, and the necessary steps to establish accountability. From there, the site offers alternative paths by highlighting the companies that are following a different approach.

The Sustainable Herbs Program also calls attention to the steps that herbalists, companies, and consumers can take to promote sustainability in the entire herbal industry.

Throughout its website, the Sustainable Herbs Program highlights the need for more environmentally sound practices in the overall industry. The program wants readers to understand that caring about the origins of their herbs is more than a fad, but rather a movement toward nurturing the ecological and social systems that create them. The site encourages nuanced conversations between customers and producers about how herbal ingredients are sourced, the ways they’re tested for quality, the steps taken to preserve them throughout the production process, and the industry’s overall impact on native plant populations.

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Notably, the Sustainable Herbs Program doesn’t celebrate or villainize specific herbal companies. The goal isn’t to tell us what to buy or from whom we should buy it, but rather to empower consumers to learn about the options available, and the impact that each purchase may have on our health and the environment. By sharing stories of the innovations toward sustainable practices made by key players in the herbal industry, the Sustainable Herbs Program hopes to inspire other companies to make similar changes. These real-world examples are meant to raise consumer awareness about the issues at stake, as well as to highlight an alternative path forward.

The complexity of the herbal industry means that no single player has all the answers. According to the program, the companies that are willing to acknowledge this are the ones to trust. Drawing attention to this kind of transparency highlights the ways that individual businesses are choosing an alternative path. In choosing to be honest about their limitations, these companies are cultivating a reliable customer base that can support the industry as it takes steps toward sustainability. It’s their goal to reconnect the broken pieces of the link so that we can follow the story of our herbal products from beginning to end.  

Join the Mission

For those interested in improving their social and ecological footprints when using medicinal plants,
the Sustainable Herbs Program offers these suggestions for driving change:

  1. Make a stand for corporate responsibility by asking questions about a business’s sustainability practices, and track the evidence that indicates whether it’s following through, such as by purchasing from certified B Corporations (businesses committed to sustainable economic practices) whenever possible.
  2. Help protect the supplies of wild-collected medicinal plants by learning whether a species is considered threatened, where the company in question sources it from, and what (if any) resource management practices they’re supporting.
  3. Prioritize buying FairWild-certified, Fair Trade-certified, and certified-organic herbal products when possible.
  4. Question companies you buy from about their quality control methods and what testing they use to ensure their products are free of contaminants and unwanted ingredients.

Learn more about the program and discover additional resources at the Sustainable Herbs Program website.

Lydia Noyes is a freelance writer and hobby farmer living on 33 acres in western Michigan. You can find her online atFirst Roots Farm.

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