Every month we investigate a different topic that weighs heavily on the sustainability industry. We identify our questions, research independently, and interview changemakers throughout the month. We record our conversations about each step of the learning process on our weekly podcast – EnvironMental.
Our goal is to understand the global sustainability industry better. We want to offer real solutions to brands, individuals, and the industry as a whole.
You can find all of our EnvironMental conversations here.
This month we’re covering sustainable sourcing for ethical brands.
Sustainable Sourcing Definition
I didn’t want to start this without a definition – this is what you get on the first page of Google when you search for “sustainable sourcing definition.”
“Sustainable Sourcing is the integration of social, ethical and environmental performance factors into the process of selecting suppliers.”Page 1 – Google
This definition is succinct and clear. We’re talking specifically about fairtrade and environmentally friendly – especially regenerative and dynamic agriculture (or agriforestry) – sourcing from farms in particular. We are also talking about the supply chain as a whole and the transparency that all brands should strive in their value chains.
EnvironMental Podcasts March 2021: Sustainable Sourcing
We started out this month with some pretty low expectations. After talking through Deforestation (the biggest bummer ever), we felt like this would be a nightmare to wade through. We tried to walk through how a sustainable brand would go about finding independent sources on their own. This left us devastated. To see how difficult it was to try to just google search for transparent ingredients as a brand owner felt like a serious blow. We found ourselves wondering what we were doing wrong, what we should be asking, and what certifications we should trust, (if any).
The changemaker we spoke with is Trish Flaster. She spent her entire career working with farmers, copackers, suppliers, and brands around the world to help bring sustainable sourcing to the forefront of brand product design. She gave us several excellent resources are gave VERY good advice about how to get started (and how to ensure long term sustainable sourcing.)
Our main piece of research this month was reading Honor Thy Label, which is a first hand account of how Dr. Bronners builds their ethical supply chains from the ground up. Here, we learned the difficulties of creating an ethical value chain and how to build a value chain from the soil up.
We also independently researched all of the extra brand resources and joined the SupplySide365 Network to start connecting with the (literally) hundreds of potential sustainable allies in the world.
Here’s the truth around sustainable sourcing.
Issues Within the Ethical Sourcing Industry
Normalized Inequality in the Sourcing Industry
Every industry has its problems, but what sets sustainable sourcing apart is that the sourcing industry, in general, was built by people who felt that it was okay to normalize abuse and neglect of their ingredient suppliers.
Everywhere we turn, we saw the evidence (and blatant proof) of a “power and profit over people and planet” mentality.
There is such a long history of things like slave labor (including child slave labor, which still happens today), forced monocropping, dangerous herbicide/pesticide use, lack of sanitation or education, unlivable wages, and disregard for the health of the farm or the culture of the farmers that these things have become normalized in a supply chain.
This adds an extra layer of skepticism in the sustainable sourcing game. When a sustainable brand or an NGO shows up to create a safe and fair supply chain, farmers don’t believe it. And why should they? Rampant exploitation of people, land, and natural resources in the name of profit has been the norm for hundreds of years.
Accesses, Networks, and Lack of Transparency
Not only do they not trust the industry, farmers and supply chain managers in developing countries have so long been taken advantage of by big business that they often have no way to take part in the movement towards regenerative farming or circular economics. They often don’t have a way to create a safe and sanitary working environment.
Then, when a brand (even a well meaning brand) has high expectations, they can’t meet those expectations right away. This loses the business they need to become a sustainable, regenerative source. The problem here is that business owners don’t always have empathy for their farmers.
On the other side of the coin, this industry is difficult to wade through for a passionate brand owner that wants to source ethically. For all the work on “transparency” in the farms, suppliers, and value chains, the buck seems to stop there. Small business owners so often feel like they’re alone in the world. They don’t know how to find the network of sources that Trish or Dr. Bronner’s have built – the SEO on the available resource networks isn’t great.
If the traceable value chain and sustainable sourcing are going to become mainstream (that’s the goal right?) we need to offer better, more transparent, networking opportunities between brands current ethical sourcing solutions. And we need to create systems of support for supply chains that are actively working towards becoming regenerative and sustainable.
Upfront Cost and Patience
But, as we learned through Honor Thy Label, creating a sustainable value chain is expensive. Not just in straight up dollars, but also in the time it takes to build.
If a farm has previously used pesticides, or a neighboring farm still uses chemicals in their planting season, the value chain will be compromised for years while farmers rid the soil of harmful toxicants. During this process, the farmers still need to make money. They still have to find ways to have a high enough yield to support their families. The transition away from chemicals makes that hard if the land has been (a) ravished by years of mono-cropping or (b) has become dependent on chemicals to keep infestations and disease away.
On the other hand, if a farm is organic, it has often been neglected. Neglected farmland often has a lower yield. It often can’t supply all of the ingredients a growing brand needs right away. It can take years (not to mention investments in education, organic fertilizers, and safer equipment) to get to a place where yield is high enough to turn a profit.
In the sustainable and regenerative agriculture model, “new” farms aren’t more helpful. They also take years to cultivate AND “new” farmland will always be questionable to a responsible entrepreneur. Deforestation and the destruction of natural habitats for agriculture are serious issues in this industry. Creating new farmland isn’t the goal.
Unfortunately corruption is an issue in the organic and regenerative world, just as it is anywhere else.
Trish talked about corporate greed and refusing reciprocity (even after it’s been agreed upon). And Honor Thy Label shared several examples (very openly) of people lining their pockets or fudging the yield numbers. We heard about some certifications that have subjective rules, and we learned about corruption on the governmental level when we talked about deforestation.
The takeaway here is, this will never not be an issue. If we want it to change, we have to root out corruption within our systems and remove it. There has to be a strict adherence to the rules that we create around sustainability and sourcing.
Sustainable Sourcing Doesn’t have to be Difficult (Tips)
Okay, so the sustainable sourcing industry is in a transitionary period. It’s kind of gnarly to wade through, and the problems go all the way to the top.
But there is also a pretty massive network of people and brands (if you know where to look) that are shining light on how to get organic and fair trade sourcing solutions for brands. There are options out there, and if there isn’t, it is possible to build your own.
It is a long process, and there are going to be a lot of steps. But it doesn’t have to be difficult.
Plug in to a Network
There are sourcing solutions for every problem you can face as a small business owner – we promise. Actually, there are a ton of solutions. They’re just a little difficult to find!
If one of the biggest issues is that you don’t have access or don’t know where to start, jump into a network. One amazing thing about the sustainability industry is that people come before profit (and competition). The more you push into a network like SupplySide365, the more doors will open for you.
Ask questions of your team to make sure that you know enough about with what is going on with your sources.
When we talk about a “lack of transparency” in this industry, a lot of it actually comes from the brand owners not asking questions about how their ingredients are grown or sourced. Traditionally, this is because they don’t want to know (plausible deniability and profit go hand in hand here).
Ignorance isn’t an excuse in the sustainable sourcing industry. Sustainability requires transparency and understanding of your source materials.
Trish gave us the advice of, “make sure that you’re asking questions in more than one way”. You really have to dig deep here. Another great way is to send a phone or a way to communicate via video directly to your source and ask them to walk you through their system.
PRO MARKETING TIP HERE: Have your source farms send you photos and use them in your content. HELLO AWESOME CONTENT!
Cut out the Middlemen Wherever Possible
Sorry co-packers and logistics engineers, nothing against ya but you muddy the value chain. In all of the reading and chatting we have done, this is one thing that comes up all the time! Slim down your supply chain.
Talking to your farmers and suppliers directly gives you the opportunity to understand and empathize with their lives. It helps you learn about their culture and it gives you the unique chance to help make a change in the lives of people around the world while making a sleeker, more transparent, and cheaper business move. SMART.
Treat Your Sustainable Supply Chain like Team Members
Hi – so your farmers, your suppliers, your liaisons, yeah, they’re all part of your team. Even if they supply twenty other brands, they’re part of YOUR team because they help you make your products.
This is another important thread we’ve seen repeated throughout the research. Empathize with the people that are helping you create your dream. The sustainable sourcing industry isn’t that big, use that to your advantage and get to know your suppliers. If you’re burning your sources by treating them like they don’t matter, people are going to know. And you could get cancelled.
Sustainable sourcing is just as much about equality and respect as it is about helping our planet regenerate from the man made climate crisis. Just operate with kindness and decency throughout everything you do, and you’ll be fine.
Cultural Understanding and Reciprocity
If you’re sourcing directly from a place where the culture is different from your own, spend time getting to know the culture. When it comes to sourcing sustainably, you’re going to find that getting your ingredients from their natural habitat through dynamic agriforestry is one of the best ways to increase yield over time. You will also find that a natural habitat for your product is very likely to fall in indigenous lands.
As a sustainable brand owner, your focus will fall on harnessing the power of the planet through regenerative agriculture AND on fair, non-exploitative labor compensation and reciprocity.
Something we found particularly interesting this month was the conversation around reciprocity with Trish. She specializes in learning what reciprocity looks like in the cultures you’re working with. Money may mean nothing to them, they may need better tools, education, sanitation space, upgraded technology – etc. It’s very important to make sure that they have a say in how they are compensated.
On that same note, make sure that you set clear expectations for your sustainable sourcing partners and then make sure that they have everything they need to meet your expectations.
If you’re expecting them not to use chemical fertilizers, understand that you may need to provide organic fertilizer to use.
When you start to build sustainable supply chain relationships, you take on the true cost of your whole business. This is true whether or not you walk in with clear, written expectations or not. Better to have both eyes open here. Know what you want and be willing to offer support to get it.
Sourcing Resources for Sustainable Brands
Now what you’ve been really looking for! The resources we gathered so that you can focus on sustainable sourcing in your business. A lot of these come directly from our chat with Trish Flaster!
Sustainable Sourcing Certifications to Look Into
Fair For Life certifies entire supply chains. This is farms, products, processors, brands, and ingredients to ensure that they are compliant with truly fair trade and holistic sustainable practices.
Demeter is a biodynamic certification standard. The very stringent rules make it difficult to achieve and maintain so when you see this certification you can trust they’re doing it right.
Forest Stewardship Council focuses entirely on sustainable forest management. They certify forests, mills, and companies that work within the wood products industry.
The Supplement Safety & Compliance Initiative is a nonprofit led by brands and retailers to ensure that the supplements they promote are safe, authentic, and compliant to global standards.
Where to Find Farms, Products, and Sustainable Suppliers
Fair For Life also has a list of their certified resources and how to connect with them so you can source fair products and ingredients.
SupplySide365 this is a network of people – a hub – for industry professionals (in every part of the supply chain) to get connected, meet each other, learn from each other, and find the best sourcing for their fair sustainable brands.
Omniactives develops ingredients and offer plant extracts that are “tested for quality right from the raw material sourcing stage to the finished product stage.”
Research and Networking Information
Supplyside365 IS a network of people and brands that are dedicated to the sustainability industry. They offer great workshops and informational webinars year around.
Nutraingredients is a William Reed company that is dedicated to sharing resources in the nutrition industry.
Tag One is a supply chain traceability app that allows small businesses to see every part of their own supply chain and share that information with their customers.
The American Botanical Council is a nonprofit that offers education around herbal medicines, helps small sustainable herbal businesses network, and has programs dedicated to safe and sustainable herbal supply chains (https://sustainableherbsprogram.org/)
Did we miss anything? Since an email to email@example.com with any questions – or leave your comments below!