What to Do: Herb Companies

What Herb Companies can do to improve the medicinal plant industry

“It is not so much about good and bad companies. What we want is to know that those companies are doing their utmost to ensure that they are putting back what they are taking out.” — Sebastian Pole.

The Sustainable Herbs Project focuses on educating consumers about quality and sustainability in the supply chain so that companies working to implement responsible practices have a more dependable customer base. In the future, we plan to develop a tool kit with actionable steps to provide pathways for companies wanting to improve their sustainability overall.

Ben Heron of Pukka Herbs has compiled a wealth of resources with examples, guidelines, and worksheets based on his extensive experience sourcing medicinal plants for his company Biolaya in the Indian Himalaya. This website is the best place to begin. Below, we have outlined some basic steps to consider.

Sourcing and Processing

  • If you are a small company, partner with herb schools and growers to develop a model of bioregional herbalism.
  • Buy Organic Herbs: Ask your current suppliers for organic herbs. If they don’t have any, find new suppliers.
  • Develop an Internal Control System for ensuring that the herbs you source are genuinely from a sustainable source. As Ben Heron said, “It was important to us not to make woolly claims, but to create foolproof systems to ensure – and provide assurance – that the herbs we were growing and collecting were organic, sustainably produced and fairly traded, and ultimately contributing to the conservation of threatened herbs species.” They developed this system to do just that.
  • Develop Wild Harvest Management Plans: The FairWild standard combines the principles of fair trade and sustainable wild collection and is considered the gold standard for ensuring the sustainable management of wild collected plants. There are high cost barriers to enter this standard, however. Biolaya developed a wild harvest management plan based loosely on the guidelines of FairWild in order to create an internal standard for companies to monitor wild collection. Ben Heron’s detailed discussion of creating and implementing this plan provides an excellent foundation for developing similar plans elsewhere.
  • Ensure that your suppliers practice Good Agricultural Practices. Ben Heron developed a set of training tools for introducing GACPs to farmers in South Asia that also provide an excellent foundation for wider implementation of these standards.

What Companies can do to improve the herb industry

Marketing: Educational Outreach

  • Tell stories, but tell stories about the people, places and plants to make those lives and places visible, not simply to sell a product. If you sell marshmallow from Bulgaria, for example, tell us about the region of Bulgaria where the marshmallow is grown. Who grows it? What are their lives like? If the plant is wild collected, share a story about the lives of the wild collectors. If you have a hard time finding those stories, perhaps you need to ask questions of your supplier other than the price of the raw material. Asking the suppliers about these stories lets them know you are paying attention. Better yet, visit those regions yourself to get your own stories to share.
  • Lots of leading herb companies offer webinars about how different remedies can be used for different ailments. To me these seem like little more than thinly veiled efforts to sell products. What about also creating webinars with information about how you vet your vendors? How do you ensure they are doing what they say they are doing? What about telling stories of the chain of custody for particular plants? Of course, the point is still to sell the product, but in the process you will not only be educating your customers about where you get your plants, but also showing that these things matter.
  • Include information about different types of processing. Provide this information not just to convince customers why your company’s processes create the most efficacious medicine, but to help us understand the reasons for the choices you have made, what the other options are, and how that impacts the efficacy of the medicine.
  • Share information about your company as a whole. Some of the most impressive documents I’ve seen about a company’s commitment to sustainability are the Sustainability Reports of Traditional Medicinals (prepared as part of being a B Corporation) and Pukka Herbs. These reports share information about practices they have implemented, their vision, and their goals. I personally am more willing to support a company that says they are working toward a goal than one that claims they’ve achieved goals that they haven’t.