The Sustainable Herbs Program (SHP) began with a simple mandate: to re-connect consumers and companies with an understanding of a basic question: “Where do herbs originate?” This involves reporting on the people, plants, and processes behind bringing botanicals and their finished products to consumers and exploring the intricacies of wild harvesting and cultivation of herbs in the global supply chain, which SHP prefers to refer to as the value network.
We began simply by asking these questions:
- Where do herbs come from?
- How are they gathered and produced?
- What is harvested, when, and by whom?
- If collected from the wild, are herbs harvested in an environmentally sustainable manner?
- Does wild harvesting affect plants’ long-term capacity to thrive in the wild?
- Are individuals who harvest the herbs receiving a fair, living wage?
- If cultivated, are herbs produced within a context of responsible land use and regenerative soil health?
These and other questions are explored through stories about the plants and the people who harvest and trade them, by interviewing experts in the commercial value network, reviewing a broad range of information sources, and presenting the information in articles, blog entries, photo essays, and videos. These stories enable an understanding of where herbs originate and, in turn, inspire responsibility for ensuring that the people and places are adequately cared for.
These connections are important because a significant amount of herbs are used for human and animal wellness. As noted medicinal plant expert Josef Brinckmann, a research fellow with the herbal tea company Traditional Medicinals and an SHP advisory group member, explained: “Part of the effect of the herbs has a lot to do with the quality not only of the herbs, but of the ecosystem and the quality of life of the people involved.”1
Or, putting this in terms of ecological medicine: “We can’t be well until the planet is well,” said author and Bioneers co-founder Kenny Ausubel in the film Numen: The Healing Power of Plants.2
Our wellness is inextricably connected with the health and wellness of the ecosystems in which we live — and, by extension, the health and wellness of the ecosystems in which the food and herbal remedies we ingest are grown, harvested, and manufactured. If the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the soils in which we grow our plants are filled with toxins, then no tea we drink or supplement we take will help.
SHP embraces the central premise that addressing sustainability in the herbal products industry begins with the whole production system and that the quality of the finished product ultimately is only as good as the quality of the ecosystems and culture of the entire value network.
Consumer attention to sustainable and ethical sourcing in the food industry is gaining traction. However, when it comes to herbs, outside of herbal community professionals, few consumers pay much attention to the crucial connections among the quality of the raw material, traceability in the value network, and the efficacy of the finished product. Consumers of herbal supplements tend to believe that by buying products made with botanicals, they are making an environmentally responsible choice. Even for those who seek to know more about their products, it is very difficult to find accurate information about the value network and human and environmental costs in an industry with complex intricacies. Moreover, sourcing botanicals from around the world is far more complicated than simply sourcing a single conventional food commodity such as wheat (Triticum aestivum, Poaceae) or corn (Zea mays, Poaceae).
A single herb company may source 120 or more plant species, each with different handling requirements and sourced from countries with different regulations and standards. SHP believes that making changes in the system of getting herbs from fields and forests to consumers begins with understanding that system, which means understanding the challenges companies face and the efforts that are being made to address those challenges.
SHP Director Ann Armbrecht, PhD, launched SHP (then known as the Sustainable Herbs Project) with a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2016 that raised $65,000 from donations that averaged $30 each. With this seed money, Armbrecht set out to document the stories of the people behind consumer herb products.
The initial goals of SHP were to create a multimedia website geared toward herb consumers, educate them about the people and places behind the finished products, and outline steps they can take to ensure that those people and places are being cared for in a sustainable manner. An additional goal was to find a long-term home for the project. The SHP website was launched in July 2017, and in the spring of 2018, a partnership with the American Botanical Council (ABC) was finalized for the Sustainable Herbs Project to become a program of ABC, with the name changed to the Sustainable Herbs Program. This partnership has brought the expertise of the ABC community, particularly that of ABC Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal and long-time ABC trustee and noted author, botanist, and photographer Steven Foster. ABC also provides numerous additional resources to expand the depth and breadth of the program, including administrative and IT assistance, marketing and fundraising experience, and its vast experience in producing high-quality, authoritative educational content.
The first year of this partnership has focused on developing a platform for delivering visually engaging stories, most of which are told in videos (more than 40 as of October 2019) on the SHP website. Together, the SHP staff is working to bring the information to a much broader audience and introduce more people to concepts of sustainability and regenerative practices, to provide resources to both consumers and herb industry members, and to partner with others in the industry and the environmental and conservation communities to promote these issues. Further, the SHP Advisory Group, consisting of 17 medicinal plant conservation experts from five countries, was formed.
The challenges facing the botanical industry, like those facing the world right now, can feel overwhelming: from flooding, drought, and earlier springs due to climate change; loss of pollinators; loss of habitat; decline of biodiversity; and urban migration, reducing the number of people willing to continue or adopt a lifestyle of rural living, which includes the challenging work of harvesting wild herbs.
While SHP points out these challenges, SHP also focuses on what steps can be taken by individuals, trade and nonprofit organizations, and industry members that are innovating in providing sustainable herb supplies while regenerating the health of the planet, plants, and people. SHP’s primary mission is to educate and inspire companies and consumers to support best practices in terms of sustainable sourcing, regenerative agriculture, and ethical value networks. SHP will continue to champion stories in which brands know their suppliers and in which engaging with the broader ecological-economic-cultural context is integral to bringing wellness to the end user. We don’t want to gloss over obvious problems, but we do want to tell stories about how things are working to inspire further change.
As Sebastian Pole, co-founder of the UK-based herbal tea company Pukka Herbs, said, sourcing medicinal plants “might be complex, because of the nature of nature and the diversity within an herbal supply chain and all of the challenges around growing, but it’s not complicated. The principle is very simple: Know where you get your herbs. Make sure you get good quality. Commit to long-term relationships, and everyone can work together.”1
Implementing that level of commitment and engagement across a company’s supply network is a tall order. The key is to begin. As Brinckmann advises, just pick one plant and follow it to its source. “I guarantee once you get there you will find things that need to be done. Just try it,” he said. “There is so much to gain and little to lose by getting to know and trust everyone in your value chain.”3
Changing the Paradigm
In her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Milkweed Editions, 2014), Robin Kimmerer writes: “The market economy story has spread like wildfire, with uneven results for human well-being and devastation for the natural world. But it is just a story we have told ourselves and we are free to tell another.”4
The natural products industry depends on raw materials from the earth, which creates a unique responsibility to regenerate and sustain those resources. This includes developing ways of doing business that regenerate the living systems on which those businesses depend. It is not only a matter of finding the right tools; it isn’t simply about life cycle analyses, benchmarking, and metrics. A deeper shift is required, one that builds on seeing the whole ecosystem, human and non-human, as the heart of decisions made and actions taken. This shift begins with asking questions and seeking answers:
- What is best for the whole?
- What is best for the plants and the ecosystems in which they flourish?
- What is best for the communities whose livelihoods depend on those plants?
- How can companies work in ways that take into account all of these complexities, and how can buyers of their products support that work and encourage them to go further?
Taking action — shifting the paradigm — will take leadership, courage, and collaboration. SHP invites everyone to participate in this vital venture.
About the Sustainable Herbs Program
SHP was initiated with the invaluable support of 19 inaugural underwriters that represent leading stakeholders in the herbal supplement and natural products industries. These underwriters include botanical ingredient suppliers, branded product manufacturers, and a leading dietary supplement trade association. ABC and SHP are grateful to these underwriters for their generous and timely support:
- Ingredient Suppliers: Applied Food Sciences, Euromed, Indena, RFI, Valensa, and Verdure Sciences
- Herbal Product Manufacturers: dōTERRA, EuroPharma/Terry Naturally, FoodState/MegaFood, Gaia Herbs, HumanN, Integria/MediHerb, Nature’s Way, New Chapter, NOW Foods, Pharmatoka SAS, Standard Process, and Thorne
- Industry Trade Association: United Natural Products Alliance
More information about SHP can be found at www.sustainableherbsprogram.com.
- Video: What is sustainable medicine? Sustainable Herbs Program website. Available at: https://sustainableherbspogram.org/explore/what-is-sustainable-medicine/. Accessed October 24, 2019.
- Armbrecht A, Youk T. Numen: The Healing Power of Plants [DVD]. Montpelier, VT: Brook Hollow Productions, Inc.; 2017.
- Armbrecht A. Pick a Plant – Now What? Five (Easy) Steps for Herb Companies. June 20, 2019. Sustainable Herbs Program website. Available at: http://sustainableherbsproject.com/pick-a-plant/. Accessed October 24, 2019.
- Kimmerer RW. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions; 2014.