Three Reasons Why it’s the Wrong Question
I’m often asked what herb company people should buy from. I’ve been visiting herb companies for the past few years, so it’s a logical question to ask. I never set out to identify the best companies though. I set out to understand the standards a handful of companies use to guide their sourcing and production practices and share what I learned. Companies change over time. Since I began researching the herb industry a little over ten years ago, a number of the companies I visited have changed ownership or management or have outsourced their production processes. I don’t know how these changes impact the company overall. In other words, a good, responsible company now might not be in 5 or 10 years. And so I have chosen to focus on standards and the certifications used to assure those standards are met.
Yet most people don’t even have time for that kind of research. What they really want is to know whether to buy Echinacea from company X or company Y. I only visited companies with high quality control and overall sustainability standards and so I tell them that the list of companies I visited is a good place to start.
But this question increasingly bothers me. I decided to tease out some of the reasons why. I came up with three.
1. One Herb Company Doesn’t Fit All
Early in this project, I read a scathing critique of green consumerism by anthropologist Richard Wilk. “‘Green’ consumer goods promise the eternal lie of the huckster — that we can have our cake and eat it too, that we can change the world without sacrifice, or any more effort than smarter shopping,” Wilk writes.
He continues, “Products and brands that do establish some sort of trusted position among consumers are just increasing their brand value in a way that makes them vulnerable to take-overs and buy-outs.”
I took this point to heart. I didn’t want to create a resource that led people to companies that in turn made them vulnerable to buy-outs. And so I resisted naming companies.
But big companies are always trying to buy out smaller companies. Traditional Medicinals and Pukka Herbs, two companies I focus on in this project, both with the highest sourcing and production practices I observed in the industry, have had plenty of offers to sell to larger companies. This past year each made different decisions about how to respond to those offers based on the particular vision and priorities of each company. On one hand, Pukka’s sale to Unilever proves Wilk’s point. But in fact, I don’t think it is so simple.
Pukka’s sale to Unilever (I’ve shared my thoughts about it here) raises questions about growth and scale in the herb industry that are bigger than the issue of what particular product or company to buy from. For example, what is the appropriate scale for a company that depends on raw materials, many that are collected in the wild, for its growth? How fast can a company grow without putting undo pressure on each sector of their supply chain? Is there such a thing as sustainable growth or is that an oxymoron?
Smaller, regional companies that grow more slowly and are more connected to issues and resources in their region make more sense to me than a handful of big ones buying and trading on a global supply chain. I live in Vermont and I’m an anthropologist drawn to rural not urban issues, which likely shapes my perspective. But I can also be convinced of the reasons for going with larger companies who are more able to source responsibly, implement more rigorous quality control standards, pay their workers a better wage, etc. The point is it isn’t a simple, one size fits all kind of answer.
That’s another reason I don’t recommend any particular herb company. The best company for me in Vermont might not be the best one for someone in southern California. If you don’t like the companies in your area, encourage them to be better. Help them change. Strengthen the businesses in your bioregion, which creates another but not unrelated kind of health.
2: Do You Really Need More Products?
Secondly, I don’t recommend companies because after following herbs through the supply chain for the past few years, I’m not convinced any of us should be buying any products at all. Josef Brinckmann, Research Fellow at Traditional Medicinals, told me that people always ask him what herbs he takes every day. He said, “I try not to use anything every day.”
And in response to the Sustainable Herbs Project website, Tom Newmark, who spent fourteen years in the supplement industry with New Chapter, told me in a message, “Between the climate extremes of flooding and draughts and the global destruction of productive ecosystems, the world of herbal medicine is hanging precariously. What we need now is something well beyond sustainability… Now, we have to revive, resuscitate, and regenerate, and if we don’t, then medicinal herbs will soon go the way of Passenger Pigeons and glaciers.”
Dr. Vasudevan, a retired botany professor who advises an Ayurvedic company in Kerala, India, told me that his only hope for the future of Indian medicinal plants is for the Ayurveda industry to stop all exports. Actually, he continued, the only hope would be for the whole industry to stop, immediately. He sighed. Neither was likely to happen, he said, and that made him very sorry for the fate of Ayurvedic medicine in his country.
And Unnikrishnan Payyappalli, an Ayurvedic doctor and scholar, said that 60-70% of biomass is wasted in production. Companies talk about sustainability, he continued, but none address this waste, which is one of the most pressing issues facing the sustainability of medicinal plants in India.
Though he is speaking of manufacturing waste, I know I personally am guilty of wasting plenty of herbs. I only have to look in my cupboard to see all the gallon mason jars filled with dark brown tinctures I made with this or that herb that I’ve never finished or the capsules or tinctures I bought and never got around to finishing.
Instead I try to ask what I might do that might have the same effect I might be looking for in an herbal product? If I do need an herb and it isn’t in my cupboard, does one of my siblings have an un-used tincture I’ve sent them that they could send back? Or can I gather it from my garden or buy it from a friend? Finally, if I’ve exhausted those options, I turn to the companies that I trust are doing the best they can to source as responsibly as possible.
The point is there is a huge amount of waste at every step of the supply chain. While there is little we can do about the manufacturing waste, we can all help by being more intentional about the herbs we do buy, thinking carefully about what plants we do use and why we are using them.
3. Healing is a Process not a Product
Finally and, to me, most importantly, I don’t recommend companies because the question focuses on herbal medicine as a product rather than herbal medicine as a system of healing.
In The Dominion of the Dead, Robert Poque Harrison, writes about what he calls the laral value of a thing. The laral value of a thing is the parts of ourselves we put into something. As we invest something of ourselves in these things, they become ‘live things” – things, Harrison writes citing Rilke, that we can live by. He quotes a letter from Rilke to his Polish publisher to explain what he means:
[F]or our grandparents a ‘house,’ a ‘well,’ a familiar tower, their very clothes, their coat, were infinitely more intimate; almost everything a vessel in which they found the human and added to the store of the human. Now from America, empty indifferent things are pouring across, sham things, dummy life…. Live things, things lived and conscient of us, are running out and can no longer be replaced.
The whole premise of the Sustainable Herbs Project is that herbal medicine is more than a product on a shelf. We experience part of the healing plants offer by learning to grow and harvest the plants themselves. We also experience that healing by knowing where our herbs come from. Knowing the people on the far side of the supply chain helps close a circle that the economy has created. The products are no longer empty, indifferent things; they become “live things”, produced by particular people living in actual places. This too offers a particular kind of medicine.