“Sustainable” is a big buzzword these days, thanks to growing awareness of climate change and of the impact of waste. It’s made its way into the mainstream: Coca-Cola Company in November announced that it had produced 300 proof-of-concept bottles containing 25% recycled marine plastic, which, Packaging Digest notes, is a big deal, as PET was previously considered unrecyclable (1). The process required Coca-Cola to partner with Spain’s Mares Circulares for marine debris collection; the Netherlands’ Ioniqa Technologies, to turn the plastic into powder; and Thailand’s Indorama Ventures, to turn that powder into resin.
That’s important work; recycling instead of creating new plastic is, obviously, vital, and if companies can clean up the oceans at the same time—two birds, one stone. But here’s the thing: Sustainability isn’t a new trend in the natural products industry. Annie Eng, CEO of HP Ingredients, sums up the industry-wide point-of-view: “Ensuring that both the materials and those that rely on collecting them are able to survive at worst and thrive at best—that’s what it means to be sustainable.” Sustainability isn’t just recycled bottles—it’s community health. And the industry isn’t new to this.
Proof: Rodale Institute was, in 1947, “founded on the idea that ‘Healthy Soil = Healthy Food = Healthy People,’” according to Margaret Wilson, Content Creation & Media Relations Specialist at Rodale. Olam Cocoa has had sustainability programs for over 15 years, according to the company. Wilson Lau, VP of Nuherbs, tells us that “as a third generation run company supplying herbs based on a medical system that is thousands of years old, the long-term thinking inherent to sustainability is in our DNA… some of our customers have been working on sustainability and green initiatives for over 20 years. We didn’t get into the sustainability world because it was hip and on trend, but because it’s part of who we are, both the customers and us as their vendor.”
Without being sustainable, we would serve no worthy purpose.
— Kartikeya Baldwa, Ixoreal Biomed
“Sustainability is a strategic priority to ensure the long-term profitability of our company,” says Runa Haug Khoury, Director of Sustainability and Public Affairs at Aker BioMarine. The future of Aker, she explains, will be faced with challenges “from loss of biodiversity and resource scarcity, to lifestyle disease threats, and climate change. Since we are on a mission to improve people’s health without compromising the health of our planet and its oceans, it is our intention to always do our part to contribute towards the solutions.”
“Sustainability is no longer a buzzword,” asserts Natural Remedies’ Senior Marketing Manager Abey Thomas. “It’s essential for business continuity, considering the rapid climate change and unpredictable weather patterns we are experiencing. Moreover, consumers, especially Millennials and Gen Z, are demanding accountability from businesses to follow sustainable practices, which provides these companies with premium differentiation at the marketplace.”
Adam Sutter, Quality Director of ChildLife Essentials, agrees: “Our product line incorporates a variety of marine oils, all of which are sustainably and responsibly sourced. This helps ensure the continued viability of our supply chain and our continued ability to provide high quality products to our customers.”
The intersection of community and sustainability has an economical logic to it—if the communities struggle, they won’t do a good job caring for the crops—but the companies who work with their growers generally care about the welfare of the community independently of the quality of their products. Phoenix Dugger, Corporate Responsibility Manager at Ardent Mills, tells us, “At Ardent Mills, we believe there is an undeniable connection between sustainability and community. Local communities are where we live, work, and play; they are where people set their roots and try to live a good life. It is our responsibility to ensure we are making wise decisions and commitments to sustainability to underscore our commitment to bettering communities.”
That responsibility, he notes, is demonstrated perfectly by his title. Asked to list out-of-company sustainability initiatives Ardent Mills contributes to, Dugger points to the company’s annual Month of Service—“this last year, our annual Month of Service saw 676 Ardent Mills team member volunteers, 3,520 hours volunteered, 54,630 pounds of food donated, and $16,641.75 dollars raised,” all focused on “nourishing our communities.”
Olam Cocoa feels the same responsibility: “For over 15 years we have been focused on delivering sustainability programs that provide long-term support to cocoa farmers, their communities, and the landscapes in which they operate.” The latest program: Cocoa Compass, which sets concrete goals for 2030 across Olam Cocoa’s whole supply chain. “These goals address the most pressing issues: living incomes for farmers, child labor, education, deforestation, and the environment, to help achieve Olam Cocoa’s vision for the future of sustainable cocoa.”
Notice how sustainability includes both deforestation and child labor, environment issues and living incomes? That’s the reality for most businesses. Kartikeya Baldwa, CEO of Ixoreal Biomed, makers of KSM-66, says: “Real sustainability means that every part of the chain of trade flourishes. Farm worker wages, community support, organic agriculture, green technology, the highest possible science, and superior products of impeccable value to well-being. Sustainability is not just cutting your energy bills, and sustainability is never finished. Without being sustainable, we would serve no worthy purpose.”
HP Ingredients (HPI) worked with the Malaysian government to prevent exploitation of the Orang Asli, the tribe that harvests Tongkat Ali for HPI’s LJ100, and to ensure that they’d be able to thrive as the only people allowed to collect Tongkat Ali in the rainforests, while preventing export of the raw root to other countries: The processed material is worth more than the raw root, so HPI helped develop a processing facility in the Orang Asli village so that they could process the raw material and supply it at a higher price. And this isn’t the only such program HPI has: The company supports the Mapuche Indians who collect Maqui berries, and the Calabrese farmers who grow bergamot in Italy.
That approach has a friend in Sabinsa. Shaheen Majeed, President Worldwide, says that sustainability means “developing a contract farming system that is mutually beneficial rather than exploitative.” As an example, he notes that the turmeric used in Sabinsa’s Curcumin C3 Complex is grown by a network of contract farmers: “What began as a way to ensure enough raw material for leading products evolved into a company mission of Indian traditional herb stewardship and support of small farming communities.” Sabinsa supplies seed to the farmers, teaches them how to grow the herbs sustainably, guarantees a minimum purchase price, and pays more when the herbs are worth more. “Our close relationships with farmers extends to supporting the infrastructure of their communities, too. We really are all connected.”
Making it Happen
“Treat the earth like home”—that’s one of the Cosmic Principles that guides Dr. Bronner’s, and David Bronner, CEO, says it involves going above and beyond sustainability: “Sustainability implies that we can keep doing what we’re doing indefinitely, even if that means accepting negative environmental impacts.” That’s why Dr. Bronner’s has gone regenerative: “By embracing Regenerative Organic Agriculture in our supply chains, we’re supporting production models for our raw ingredients that help sequester carbon in soil, build and support soil health, and preclude unnecessary pollutants…we have installed solar panels at our manufacturing facility in Vista, CA; we’ve worked with local partners to plant landscaping around our facility that helps retain rainwater, which nourishes endemic flora around the headquarters property and thereby creates a habitat for pollinators; we encourage our customers to adopt a plant-based diet and lifestyle.”
Similarly, Tate & Lyle looks at sustainability not just as maintenance, but as improvement. Anna Pierce, Global Sustainability Manager, notes that “one of the three pillars of Tate & Lyle’s purpose of ‘Improving Lives for Generations’ is to care for the planet we live on and to help protect it for the benefit of future generations. As we look to the future, we have reflected on our sustainability goals and asked ourselves what we could do to have the greatest impact. As a result, we are in the process of significantly refreshing our sustainability program. Some aspects of the program are in progress already, such as our commitment to support 1.5 million acres of sustainable agriculture, equivalent to our global corn procurement volume each year. For other areas we will be announcing new 2030 environmental targets in the coming year.”
Many agree that regulatory requirements are the bare minimum—and not nearly enough. “We go beyond regulations in our efforts,” says Aker BioMarine’s Khoury. “Since 2018, we have established voluntary penguin buffer zones, where we don’t fish during the penguins’ breeding season. This is an example of our continuous collaboration with scientists and NGOs working to protect ocean health and marine wildlife.” The payoff: “The Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP), an independent non-profit organization that analyzes and evaluates the sustainability of reduction fishery stocks worldwide, recently released its annual Reduction Fisheries Sustainability Overview. For the fifth year in a row, Aker BioMarine has received an ‘A’ rating from the SFP.” Or, forget the ratings and look at the numbers: “New international research, surveying the krill biomass around the Antarctic Peninsula for the first time in 19 years, has determined that the krill biomass is healthy,” Khoury says. “In fact, the numbers are up by more than 2 million tons since the last large-scale krill survey conducted in the year 2000.” And to make sure things only get better, Aker is investing in tech and big data that can help fisheries better estimate the actual biomass and optimize and manage harvesting patterns, production flow, and maintenance.
Similarly, Ardent Mills works beyond the bare minimum of legal requirements. “Ardent Mills is part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s SmartWay program,” Dugger says, a program that has shown reduction of 2,000 to 4,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year for a typical truck in their program. To name a few non-governmental programs: “Ardent Mills partners with Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, as an Associate Member, to deliver sustainable outcomes for agriculture…During Ardent Mills Fiscal Year 2019, Ardent Mills launched a comprehensive zero waste program. The program encompasses 12 facilities with more than 500 tons of waste diverted from the landfill or reduced entirely…The Ardent Mills Innovation Center in our Denver headquarters began composting in Fiscal Year 18. Since the program began, 80,409 pounds of material have been diverted from landfills…Our bag design features a Sustainable Forestry Initiative label, a standard that promotes sustainable forest management in North America.” For more, check out Ardent Mills’ annual Sustainability Report, published in July (2).
And then there’s upcycling, the basis for so many products. “We partner with farmers who grow non-GMO crops, providing us with superior raw materials,” says Rich Troyer, CEO of Comet Bio. Using those raw materials—farm leftovers—Comet Bio extracts arabinoxylan, a prebiotic dietary fiber. Upcycling restricts recyclers to byproducts, a problem that Comet Bio solves with sourcing and testing: “By teaming up with growers, we understand where our feedstock is coming from, how it is being grown and collected. It enables us to mitigate any missteps that could occur when purchasing farm leftovers. The final ingredient is tested to ensure its purity and safety. Through our approach, we are not only producing ingredients that are healthy and sustainable, but are of the highest quality possible.” It’s a process Troyer hopes to see used across the industry—“Our upcycling approach can be used for a number of other agricultural and food byproducts. We envision a day when upcycling becomes a best practice within the supplement, food, and beverage fields. It solidifies a circular economy…by taking these materials and putting them back into the rotation of a company’s supply chain, you take that open end and turn it into a jumping-off point for something new.”
Another upcycler: Stratum Nutrition, whose NEM comes from eggshells that would have otherwise gone in the trash. The company website notes that Stratum’s founder once watched truckloads of discarded shells leave an egg-breaking facility—and then researched the health benefits of eggshell membrane, found out that it had been used “all the way back to Japan’s antiquity,” and began using an environmentally friendly manufacturing process to upcycle eggshell membrane into a clinically proven joint health ingredient.
There’s also geoauthenticity, which necessitates sustainability. “This is the belief that potency and authenticity of herbs taken from where they naturally grow will be superior to plants cultivated in non-native locations,” says Lau. This belief is predicated on the understanding that humidity, soil, temperature, and micro-climate all contribute to the constituents of the plant, and it throws the need for a healthy climate into sharp relief: If a plant can’t be grown elsewhere, then work must be done to ensure that the plant can always be grown in its native location. “We choose partners that share our values, we have worked with quite a few of them since China was opened to outside trade. Sourcing directly from the farmers and wild crafters ensures the herbs meet our standards, which include practices to prevent over-harvesting. Each herb is assessed to confirm it can be harvested sustainably. We want the herbs to still be there for my grandchildren to source from the descendants of the farmers we work with today.”
Emma Cahill, Senior Strategic Marketing Manager, Food Protection & Fermentation at Kerry Applied Health & Nutrition Division, tells us that “Kerry has more than 1,000 food scientists, technologists, researchers and nutrition experts on staff around the world working on sourcing and developing natural-based solutions that can extend the shelf life of many different fresh foods and beverages.” Kerry offers a variety of shelf-life solutions—which can help solve the problem of food waste. Back in October, The Organic Center noted that around a third of all food produced gets lost or goes to waste, a massive loss of resources (3). And while fixing the issue of food waste involves better management from farm to shelf, it certainly helps if products have a longer shelf-life, using clean ingredients like Kerry’s citrus extracts or vinegar-based solutions.
Of course, there’s the all-important step of making sure that the whole company is on board. “We take a trickle-down effect to ensure that we aren’t just talking about it,” says Ardent Mills’ Dugger. “We set internal goals, educate our employees, and make suggestions to improve the sustainable nature of our business.” Technology, goals, and beliefs won’t be enough if your team isn’t all on the same page.
Our close relationships with farmers extends to supporting the infrastructure of their communities, too. We really are all connected.
— Shaheen Majeed, Sabinsa
“The demand for organic food is growing rapidly—14% of produce sold in the U.S. last year was organic, with the domestic market reaching over $52 billion,” says Wilson. “This shows that consumers are starting to pay more attention to the way their food choices affect the planet, animals, and society, and vote with their dollars for a more regenerative food system. Consumers want to know that the food they are buying was grown in a way that regenerates the soil and supports healthy animals and people.”
That consumer attention isn’t given just to fresh produce—it’s also directed at supplements, packaged food, and soap.
“Our customers are very interested in our sustainability journey and the journey of the entire value chain,” says Pierce. “This interest is driven by a combination of their own goals as well as an increased desire by consumers to better understand the products they’re buying and the impact they have on the environment.” In many cases, he adds, the company partners with customers to achieve shared sustainability goals.
“There is no question that our customers show great interest in our sustainability efforts,” agrees Khoury. “Consumers around the globe want environmentally friendly products, which means that the whole supply chain is involved from ingredient suppliers all the way down to the end user. Consumers also want to know where their products are coming from, so traceability is essential. By effectively communicating this and by working closely with our customers, we are able to deliver the right information to their consumers.”
Not only do customers care—Bronner says that that’s why customers buy Dr. Bronner’s products in the first place. “Many of our customers are initially attracted to Dr. Bronner’s products because of our environmental stewardship values. They very much appreciate that our soap is biodegradable, made with plant-based organic ingredients. And the majority of our customers also support the various advocacy issues we engage in to mitigate and help reverse climate change. We endeavor to make the best products for people and planet. Our customers know that in continuing to purchase Dr. Bronner’s, they’re joining us in this mission.”
“It is generally understood that consumers will pay more for higher quality products made with higher quality ingredients,” says Brian Zapp, Creative Director at AFS. But that doesn’t tell the whole story: “According to Mintel, nearly all consumers agree that it is important that a company acts morally/ethically, and nearly two-thirds of consumers say they’d stop buying from a brand if it has irresponsible practices. On the other hand, 82% of consumers also believe that companies with socially responsible initiatives have higher quality products and are willing to pay more for these products that align with their values.”
If customers don’t care, it might just be that they don’t have the necessary information. “As we’ve done our outreach to our customers on sustainability practices,” says Sutter, “they are becoming more interested in all forms of stewardship, including the move towards a non-GMO/organic supply chain.”
And if education doesn’t work? Sometimes, says Baldwa, that’s just how things are: “Many customers show great interest in and appreciation for our sustainable practices, and some do not care. This is representative of the world. Many people are ardently devoted to a flourishing planet and good life for all creatures, while others are utterly indifferent or poorly informed. We communicate why this matters, and can certainly do more. Being sustainable is not a popularity contest for us. It is the only ethical and moral and life-imbuing path.”
How Retailers Can Help
Our experts share ways to educate customers, support sustainable companies, and improve your own business’s sustainability:
“I recently heard a Development Manager with Google, Brin Jimenez, say that today’s consumers can be characterized as ‘curious, demanding, and impatient,’” says Zapp. “Retailers should be thinking of ways to trigger that consumer curiosity and lead them to quick, simple, and easily digestible ways to understand the products they purchase.” Zapp’s suggestion: Turn to technology. “Social media helps make the world a smaller place. 63% of Facebook and Twitter consumers say they use these platforms to serve as a source of information outside the realm of friends and family, according to the Pew Research Center.” In 2018, AFS took Kris Gethin, CEO of Kaged Muscle, to Southern India, where AFS sources their PurCaf organic caffeine. The Kaged Muscle team was introduced to the farmers, conducted interviews, and assisted in the harvest, and all of it was filmed. “The response on social media was outstanding,” Zapp recalls, “as literally
millions of followers were able to go along on the journey.”
Videos like that from AFS, as well as videos from Dr. Bronner’s, Sabinsa, and HPI, can be posted on your social media accounts so that your customers can see where their products come from. Majeed made a point of noting that Sabinsa works hard “to make sure this aspect of our ingredient production is well known, making it easy to pass along to people using products containing Sabinsa’s ingredients.”
Another bit of advice: “Carry brands that don’t greenwash,” advises Baldwa. “Use store space and conversation with customers to communicate clearly why working for a better planet matters.” Along those lines, Rodale’s Wilson suggests stocking “food with clearly regulated labeling, like the USDA Certified Organic label.” A new partnership between Rodale, Patagonia, Dr. Bronner’s, and others will soon see a new label: Regenerative Organic Certification, which will show customers that their food was raised in a regenerative and ethical manner.
Even with quality labels, it’s worth it to take this advice from Majeed: “Ask brands questions about the products on your store shelves. There are often pretty good stories behind ingredients that can then be shared with customers via social media or store newsletters.” Lau seconds that: “Make sure to carry products that share your commitment. Ask brands for details about their sustainability initiatives. Ask if sustainability is part of their sourcing policies, and request concrete examples. Raw material suppliers should have this information available and provide it willingly. This is also great information to share with consumers via social media.” Sharing this kind of information can raise both awareness about sustainability and loyalty to your store, as a place where sustainable and ethical products can be purchased.
In the meantime, do your own research as you work to make your own business more sustainable. A video from a manufacturer is a plus, but the reason people will buy it from you is
because they know that you use ethical, sustainable practices.
Colin Beirne, Marketing Director at Ellwood Thompson’s, says: “At Ellwood’s, we favor products that contain clean ingredients that have positive impacts on the environment, including ones produced with regenerative agriculture. We also favor products that have minimal packaging, use recycled materials, and/or compostable. We compost our food scraps and leftover pulp from our juicers, along with our compostable to-go containers; local farmers are always welcome to come take as much as they need. All the leftover compost is taken to a local company that turns it into the organic ‘compost tea’ fertilizer we sell in the summer months. We keep our recycling program in-house, and have since 1989: An average of 60% of our grocery store waste is recycled, and we’re always pushing for more. We offer reusable and compostable food containers. We have rain barrels on the patio to help water outside herbs and plants. In 2018 we replaced plastic straws with compostable straws made from non-toxic agricultural byproducts, which turn fully to dirt within 3 to 6 months in a commercial composting facility.” Ellwood’s partners with Natural Organic Process Enterprise to make sure that their biodegradable products are handled correctly.
Beirne notes that they have several programs intended to push recycling. Customers can choose glass jars for their bulk foods, at which point a $2 jar deposit will be added at checkout. When the jar and lid are returned, they redeem their $2. Beirne also brought up their bag share program: “Need a bag? Take a bag! Have a small hoard at home? Bring them in and leave them at our Local Food Hub to share with those who forgot their reusable bags! And, should you forget your own reusable bags one day, just stop by the Bag Share and snag one for yourself.”
Beirne adds that it’s not always about the products and plastic. “We use environmentally friendly, locally sourced, reclaimed building materials. We use LED and fluorescent bulbs and fixtures that require less energy to run, last way longer than an ordinary bulb, put out less heat, and give us great lighting. We reward those who choose environmentally friendly travel: We’ll take 25 cents off your purchase when you get to our store by walking, biking, bussing, running, skipping, skating, or any other means of travel that helps reduce emissions. And we use reusable store signage. The majority of our signs are made from reclaimed woods or chalkboards, helping us recycle signage by not having to throw signs away every time a deal is updated or a price is changed.”
In terms of community? “By selling local goods, we’re not only contributing to our individual health, but also the health of our local economy and our planet. The farmers we work with uphold our environmental pledge by committing to organic growing practices, sustainable soil treatment, fair treatment of farm workers, and preserving animal welfare. Our local integrity pin marks products that traveled no more than 100 miles to get to our store.”
From Thomas: “All businesses can become sustainable, with the adoption of clean technology, sustainable cultivation practices, and through careful preservation of our fragile ecosystem. The hard reality is that businesses don’t have much of a choice. Either adapt to change or become irrelevant.” From Baldwa: “Businesses who are not sustainable will not survive. And if too many businesses fail to be serious about sustainability, then none of us will survive. It is that stark and plain. Being sustainable is not just the right thing to do, but is in fact the only thing to do if we wish to continue to live.” From Eng: “If a dietary supplement brand is not sustainable, it will languish, sputter, and fail. Younger adult generations are futuristic and intent on doing no harm. The businesses they choose to patronize and the brands they choose for trial and loyalty need to meet those tenets.” WF
- Kate Bertrand Connolly, “Coca-Cola trials recycled marine plastic for beverage packaging,” Packaging Digest. Posted 11/7/19. Accessed 12/1/19. https://www.packagingdigest.com/sustainable-packaging/coca-cola-trials-recycled-marine-plastic-for-beverage-packaging-2019-11-7?ADTRK=InformaMarkets&elq_mid=11164&elq_cid=4597405
- WholeFoods Magazine Staff, “Ardent Mills Releases Annual Sustainability Report,” WholeFoods Magazine. Posted 7/29/19. Accessed 12/1/19. https://wholefoodsmagazine.com/suppliers/news-suppliers/ardent-mills-releases-annual-sustainability-report/
- WholeFoods Magazine Staff, “Organic Farming is Worse for Climate Change? Not So, Says The Organic Center,” WholeFoods Magazine. Posted 10/24/19. Accessed 12/1/19. https://wholefoodsmagazine.com/news/main-news/organic-farming-worse-for-climate-change-not-so-says-the-organic-center/