“As a nation we are struggling with a profound lack of imagination. We don’t see the forests being cut down to build our homes, the lakes being drained as we fill our tub. We live on the far side of a broken connection. Not seeing the people and places on the other side – not seeing the moral and ecological consequences of producing these commodities – simply makes them easier to buy.” — Wendell Berry
Healing this broken connection, Berry concluded, begins with seeing beyond what the market wants us to see.
The Sustainable Herbs Project has been following herbs through the supply chain to explore much broader questions about our role as citizens of the world and how, through our choices about the commodities we consume, we impact that world. How can we live more lightly on the earth? How can we treat each other, the earth, and ourselves with more care and respect? How can we create worlds that are healthier—physically, socially, emotionally and spiritually?
We explore these questions by focusing on companies working to ensure that the vision and values of herbal medicine apply to the entire medicinal plant supply chain, not just the end product. But our vision is much larger than changing this industry. We hope to show how changing this particular industry is a way to change the world.
The global botanical medicine industry has grown significantly over the last few decades, reaching almost $100 billion in sales. Consumers of herbal supplements tend to believe that in buying products made with plants, they’re making the environmentally responsible choice. Unlike the food industry where attention to traceability and sustainable and ethical sourcing is gaining traction, however, outside of the herb community, neither consumers nor herbal supplement companies pay much attention to the crucial connections between the quality of the raw material, traceability in the supply chain, and the efficacy of the finished product. Even for those seeking to know more, in an industry known for secrecy, it is very difficult to find accurate information about the supply chain or the human and environmental costs.
I created the Sustainable Herbs Project because I was struck by the disconnect between the philosophy of herbal medicine and the reality of what it takes to produce herbal products on a large scale. This disconnect impacts the efficacy of these medicines. And it calls into question the promise of herbal medicine as safer, less expensive, and healthier for humans and the earth.
Plants are a potent source of healing only if the principles at the heart of herbal medicine guide the entire supply chain. A handful of companies are leading the way in doing exactly this. I am focusing on their efforts not so that consumers rush to these companies. My goal is not to promote any particular company but to outline standards we should demand of the industry overall and the steps to take to support companies working to make these changes.
The goal of this site is to first to educate consumers about the supply chain and the issues involved. Secondly, we outline steps to encourage more companies to implement these sustainability standards.
As consumers we have a lot more power than we imagine. The first step in acting on that power is understanding what it takes to bring herbs to market – where the plants are from, how they are grown, who does the work, and how the work is done – so we aren’t naive in our expectations and unrealistic in our judgments. This industry is incredibly complex. And no one has all the answers or is doing it all right. The companies to trust are the ones acknowledging that.
We can help companies that are trying to make more sustainable choices by understanding the challenges they face and by encouraging them to go further. Let them know you like what they are doing. Let them know if you are willing to pay more if they go a bit further. A supportive, reliable customer base can help companies take the next steps toward achieving sustainability.
Begin the journey here.