When consumers decide which herbal products to use—and when integrative practitioners decide what to recommend—price isn’t the only object. Concerns about authenticity, eco-social sustainability, and measureable product quality also come into the mix. The proliferation of quality and ethical certification seals like USDA Certified Organic, Fair Trade, Fair Wild, Eco-Cert, and Forest Stewardship Council on natural product labels speaks to a tectonic values shift that is underway in mainstream consumer demand patterns.
An informed and empowered consumer is demanding greater accountability on behalf the brands he or she buys. Branded manufacturers of healthy organic and natural foods, beverages, dietary supplements, cosmetic, and body care products are responding by committing to sourcing their ingredients in ever more sustainable, traceable, and authentic ways. They are making these shifts not only for favorable brand positioning to their end users. They are also shifting to reduce exposure to business risks and to secure their supply chains. In June 2012, FoodNavigator.com quoted Lara Koritzke, ISEAL’s communications director: “…if you talk to the big companies like Kraft, Nestle, or Unilever, they have to [source responsibly] either because they are concerned about having a sustainable supply in the future or because they just know it’s the right thing to do. It’s really engrained in business now.” Koritzke pointed out that companies large and small are seeking to compete effectively and align with consumer demand trends, not by offering a few green or eco-social products into their mix, but by transforming their entire product lines. She noted the trend of having whole foods and products 100% certified to third party sustainability seal standards, not just individual ingredients. This makes sense: the consumer isn’t just consuming a selection of ingredients, but rather the whole product. This trend will put enormous pressure to grow available supplies—sustainably—of every imaginable herbal ingredient to serve rising global demand.
The question for herbal growers and non-timber specialty crops producers, therefore, is how to grow their businesses sustainably along with this basic demand trend. Further, if the grower is using inherently sustainable farming and land stewardship practices, how can this translate to premium income opportunities in contract growing and direct consumer supply relationships?
A recent German study entitled “Environmental services coupled to food products and brands” provides some helpful insights on how food companies buying from growers are increasingly interested in quantifying (and then touting) their growers’ environmental service benefits. These benefits include ecosystem services like biodiversity preservation, soil conservation, and water quality enhancement. They can also minimize detectable pesticides, harmful microbial pathogens, and heavy metal toxicity that result from certified organic methods and “…using environmentally friendly management practices, such as low fertilizer inputs, avoidance of pesticide application, or special mowing techniques in order to protect soil, water, species and habitats.” The article establishes that “…food companies have an interest in the documentation of environmental benefits… for their marketing strategies. Provision of support by finance or contract-design is also seen as an appropriate tool to promote environmentally friendly production.” Notably, the study found, “Half of the companies [of 54 surveyed] are willing to financially support contract farmers for specific environmental benefits,” even though these eco-benefits have no direct economic return value to the buying companies. It is an ethical and long-term sustainability mindset driving these decisions, along with these food companies’ competitive assessments that they stand to gain superior market share over time. The key, then, lies in the herbal or specialty crops growers’ ability to document superior marketplace value soon after harvest, so that their buyers can translate that value downstream in their supply chains to all subsequent stakeholders, including the end consumer.
This is where USBSL can help.
Bent Creek Institute, Inc., an affiliate of The North Carolina Arboretum, established a non-profit botanical ingredient analytical testing service based in Western North Carolina. USBSL’s goal is to make validated third-party Certificates of Analysis (COA) available affordably to commercial growers, wildharvesters, and consolidators who supply herbal ingredients into global demand chains. Consumers are demanding goods that are environmentally friendly in production. Documentation of the absence of pathogenic microbes, heavy metal toxicity, and pesticides strengthens an environmentally responsible supply chain that consumers demand. For agriculturally produced herbal crops, a farmer could initiate such a relationship by substantiating claims that his or her herbal crops do indeed meet consumer (and practitioner) expectations. The USBSL COA does just that! This could lead not just to the sale of a single season’s harvest at a premium price, but to a stronger ongoing relationship with buyers who recognize the benefits of substantiating environmental services provided by the farmer.
The recent articles above support that food industry buyers are concerned about overall sustainability in their supply chains. They are likely to recognize the value of sustainable sourcing in their long-term contracts and grower relationships, thus supporting these growers’ investments in lab-tested evidence of their superior product quality. That evidence comes in a crop’s phytochemical potency, in its proper taxonomic identity, and in its purity.
At USBSL, our message to herbal producers that use our services is simple: your buyers will thank you. Through our botanical testing services, USBSL can help you build values-driven, rather than just price-driven, buyer relationships that will grow right along with consumer demands for greater sustainability, accountability, and traceability in the herbal ingredients they use every day.
 Food Navigator-usa.com, 14 Jun 2012, http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Market/Food-companies-are-concerned-about-sustainable-supply-ISEAL