Impacting Wellness, Sustainability, and Social Responsibility

herbs botanicals

Have you ever considered how wellness, sustainability, and social responsibility are inherently connected? Just take a look at the herbal supplements in your own home for proof.

Each capsule, tablet, tincture, and balm is more than the sum of its parts. The end product you hold in your hand symbolizes the thousands of hours, countless people, and dozens of complex networks of resources and logistics needed to make that product possible: the planning, research, cultivation, processing, shipping, and everything in-between. And in more ways than one, the systems and networks that make up the herbal supplements industry have a direct impact on people and the environment, from the very beginning of the supply chain to the end.

Why acting responsibly starts with the supply chain

Right now, the industry is distinctly positioned to address matters of sustainability and social responsibility, especially where they intersect with personal wellness. As companies like Bluebird Botanicals seek to formulate robust, plant-based products that help people reach their wellness goals naturally, they face the ever-present challenge of wading through a sea of ingredient suppliers that often put profit over the good of the environment and their labor forces. 

Nowhere is this challenge more prevalent than when companies develop new product formulations and need to vet potential suppliers. Over the years, many ingredient suppliers have devastated wild populations of herbs, eschewed sustainable farming practices, and used harsh chemicals as solvents in their extractions. And as climate change negatively affects the crop yields of both farmed and wild sources of herbs, certain suppliers have turned to producing low-quality botanicals that are less effective than high-quality crops, thereby generating more ecological waste in production. 

“Finding trustworthy suppliers is a huge part of the product development process," said Johnnie Heider-Kuhn, certified clinical herbalist and research and development lead at Bluebird Botanicals. "When we need to look for new ingredient partners, we consider three key factors: Do they supply ingredients that are pure, natural, and potent? Do they act responsibly towards the environment? And do they sustain their workforce in a way that supports local economies and promotes the well-being of their workers? It’s a three-pronged approach to finding ingredient partners that aims to mutually benefit the people fueling the supply chain, the environment, and our end consumers.”

Thoughtful ingredient sourcing

Bluebird implemented this approach as it sourced ashwagandha, echinacea, rhodiola, and elderberry for its new line of functional soft gels. As with all of its ingredients, Bluebird first ensured it would deliver only the highest-quality products to consumers through maintaining the strictest quality standards in the industry. These include testing all ingredients for 300+ herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides, as well as for four heavy metals and more than a dozen residual solvents and glyphosate; genetically identifying each herb through high performance thin layer chromatography (HPTLC); and ensuring its suppliers meet FDA and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) standards. 

Suppliers that met the criteria for quality were next screened for environmental sustainability. The process included evaluating suppliers’ harvesting practices of wild-crafted herbs; assessing the carbon footprint generated by shipping the herbs; gauging whether suppliers’ farming and extraction processes were sustainable, organic and/or regenerative; and understanding whether they farmed their botanicals with future generations of soil and plants in mind.

Requiring that suppliers demonstrate social responsibility towards their workforces was the final piece of the puzzle, and has a direct impact on the survival of the herbal supplements industry itself. The historical lack of fair pay and support for workers and their communities at the beginning of the supply chain has caused the urban migration of the workers who grow and harvest botanicals. As this vital workforce continues to shrink, it will become harder on the supply chain to meet the market’s demand. Paying workers liveable wages to support their families and ensuring safe work environments, therefore, are key in securing the future of the industry.

To address both the quality of life for workers and the industry’s longevity, Bluebird evaluates its ingredient suppliers on whether they pay fair wages to farmers and harvesters, and whether they administer any incentive programs or employee well-being initiatives.

The results

After months of research and networking, several suppliers stood out when evaluated against the above criteria. Each supplier met strict quality standards in line with the rest of Bluebird’s products. On the environmental front, these suppliers either maintain their own organic cultivations to secure sustainable inventories of herbs and take pressure off of wild crops, or closely oversee the wild-harvesting of their herbs to maintain quality and ensure that future generations of the herbs are able to continue. Several suppliers are developing their own sustainability programs to improve their environmental impact, better manage natural resources, improve social equity, and secure a sustainable supply chain. 

Suppliers were also chosen because of how they demonstrate their commitment to supporting the communities in which they operate. Each ingredient supplier prioritizes worker and farmer support through any combination of advocating for fair pay, employing long-term contracts to ensure a consistent source of income, or other assistance programs. 

For example, Natreon, which supplies Bluebird with Organic Sensoril® ashwagandha extract, is one such company that ensures their organic farmers in the Madhya Pradesh region of India benefit from a sustainable sourcing method, promoting economic stability. The genetic identity of Organic Sensoril® is guaranteed through HPTLC testing, meaning that the extracts are unadulterated. Similarly, ElderMune® supplier NutriScience guarantees the identity and efficacy of all its European black elderberry juice concentrate.

Advancing smart, sustainable practices in the future

While these criteria are an important first step, there is always more to be done. Heider-Kuhn, who also serves on the sustainability committee for the American Herbal Products Association, has his eye on much larger goals for Bluebird Botanicals.

“As we develop strategic plans for improving our own sustainability practices, we’re going to look at a few main tactics,” he said. “Namely continuously assessing the carbon footprint of our production process and supply chain, and strengthening partnerships with suppliers that develop and implement company-wide sustainability strategies.”

Because herbal supplements represent such a complex network of systems, processes, environmental resources, time, and labor, it’s worth considering how our personal wellness habits and purchases are intrinsically linked to broader global issues - and more importantly, how we can impact the industry for good with our purchasing power.

For more information on sustainability in the herbal supplement industry, check out the Sustainable Herbs Program from the American Botanical Council.