A conversation ensued the other day on Facebook to which I probably contributed far too frequently to because it is a topic which I am passionate about. I thought it best to remove myself from the conversation and bring my thoughts here to the blog, because I was getting a little het up.
We talk A LOT about sustainability and social medicine at Goddard. In fact there has been a rumor that the Health Arts & Science program might begin to offer that Master’s degree. I believe it is the degree I will probably end up pursuing if is offered. I realize in participating in that conversation surrounding sourcing, that the information people have has not kept up with the modern reality of a global market.
Do you remember the heyday of the phrase “think globally, act locally”? I think many of my readers are old enough to have heard it quite a bit. But maybe what you don’t know is that idea is kind of an outdated one, in these days of the international, global economy. While certainly we need to continue to support local initiatives, the idea that the whole world is going to go backwards and countries will turn back to insular purchasing while ideal, is ludicrous. Those who want to pursue that idealism, by all means continue. For those who prefer to focus on what is practical, read on…
We also have to consider the historical impact of the American role in the global economy, as well as its modern implications. If by creating an insane demand for a product, we Americans have created jobs which have enticed people in third world countries to leave their traditional form of living behind to work in these industries, we are indirectly responsible for the continued well-being of these workers. We have a certain level of social responsibility for these people.
Boycotting a product while it might have some small impact on a company could also have a devastating impact on the workers and their families. To be fair. There are some companies, like Nestle, that I boycott, but I question the efficacy and even morality of that practice. Steve’s Mom has also been boycotting Nestle since before I was born and that hasn’t seemed to make much of an impact on the CEO or the shareholders. The fat boys are going to maintain their salaries and payouts at the expense of the workers, by cutting back their workforce, requiring mandatory overtime of those workers who remain and mistreating them even more than before. That is the regretfully atrocious reality of mainstream American business practice. It is entirely possible that the boycott has increased slavery, rather than prevented it. Still, I can’t suggest that we support, or source raw ingredients from, companies whose business practices we abhor. I think that the best that we can do is to research and support fair-trade, sustainable farming projects in the hopes that maybe some of those displaced workers can find a better employment situations, if our boycott has in some way impacted them.
As I mentioned before realism has to enter into to the picture at some point. We are not going to eliminate the American demand for sugar, coffee, chocolate or even palm. What all consumers can do is put intense pressure on American companies to source these products properly. By pressuring large manufacturers into sustainable sourcing, we have the effect of improving the workers situations even more by creating more business for companies treating their employees, and their ecosystems, ethically. I get that all of the regulatory commissions aren’t perfect, but if no one is buying their product, the companies won’t have the funds to continue to improve their programs. So consumers should look for sustainable sources of the aforementioned and continue to encourage more stringent regulation in that industry.* Personally I think that correspondence from someone who says, “Listen, I am supporting you but I want you to do better” is far more effective than “I will not buy your product until you are perfect”.
We herbalists can do the same when sourcing our herbal products. Ideally, we should try to focus our practice on local herbs and local herb growers. When you hear my polite explanation that ” Indian and Chinese herbs don’t really speak to me” what I really mean is that it is kind of against my principals to use exotic herbs when there are perfectly good local plants about.
Still there are some herbs that I have found to be useful and I love spices in my cooking so I am at the mercy of the international market. That is reality. There are companies like Mountain Rose, which enforce fair-trade standards in their international sourcing and I support them because of it. I still want them to do better, though.
I am continually impressed by Frontier Natural Products Co-op‘s work in this area. Sadly, they don’t get a lot of respect from the herbal community for working to improve their sourcing practices dramatically over the last decade. (I am going to go out on a limb and say it is because they don’t have an affiliate program and no one gets paid to promote their products, but I am cynical that way.) First of all, the company itself is a member-owned coop with stellar business practices especially in how they treat their employees. I’ve heard rave reviews of their cafeteria as I know a few of the farmers who supply it and they have an on-site employer-subsidized childcare facility which is an extreme rarity in Iowa. Additionally, their Well Earth Program has truly been going a step beyond the idea of fair-trade and is actively working to improve the communities from which they are sourcing their products. You can read here about a school they built in one community. I am baffled as to why they don’t get more respect amongst herbalists. I figure it is because a lot of people don’t know about the program, so I will give it a shout-out, but I still want them to do better.
There are companies like American Botanicals whose sourcing is not stringent enough for me and I won’t order from them. This is no great loss to any, except maybe to my pocket book because they are cheaper. But you kinda get what you pay for there.
I’d like to end this with a plea to the community herbalists out there, not to be too judgmental of people for not using sustainable products. I get it, but really shaming people who might be buying the best ingredients they can afford, isn’t going to make you any friends and it is mean. Also never speak in absolutes. Most words which follow the phrase “I never..” are sure to get you in trouble someday unless you are “practically perfect in every way” like Mary Poppins and even she eats sugar.
I am definitely not perfect in this regard. Sometimes it slips out because I am really passionate about these things. But also I come from a pretty damn poor background and I have a compassion for poverty that is only shared by those who have experienced it.
Even on a practical level, I am of the opinion that if you give people a positive action to take rather than shaming people for the negative you will accomplish more good. I think that my goal for the blog this year is to talk more about sustainability and share more practical, simple ideas for achieving that. And yes, Quinn, that means I will share more recipes, even though that makes me look more “like a bumpkin and less like a professional herbalist”. Because maybe I am a bumpkin, but I am a damn smart one and I’d like to do some good with that.
Personal letter I sent to GSA
The other day I had my proverbial rear handed to me for sticking up for Girl Scout cookies in a public forum. As a former leader and cookie cupboard, I have to tell you that I don’t appreciate the fact that the organization leaves me in the precarious position of having to put aside my values in defending what has pretty much become an American tradition.
While I understand the efforts the organization is making (GreenPalm Certificates, planning the switch to certified sustainable palm oil), it simply isn’t enough. The standards in that industry need to be made stronger.
Girl Scouts has the purchasing power which could drive the industry to do away with deforestation which would indeed “make the world a better place”
As an aside, it would also “make the world a better place” if you would remove the hydrogenated products from all of your cookies. Trans fat is pretty evil and draws the organization even more bad press. Stop falling back on loopholes and do the right thing.