For all the talk in the natural products industry about the importance of sustainability and fair trade, very few of the estimated 3,000 botanical species that are being traded globally each year are being traded under the watchful eye of ecological or fair trade certifying agencies.
"The majority of these species are wild collected ... and demand for eco-social certifications is very low," according to a new report looking into ethical trading and fair trade certification in the botanicals market, published in HerbalGram, The Journal of the American Botanical Council. "The process of establishing a sustainable and/or fair trade management system is time-consuming, difficult to navigate, and may compromise elements of secrecy. So, does the benefit outweigh the inputs and risks? This is pioneer territory. Who knows for sure?"
In the case of botanicals, ensuring sustainability and fair trade practices can be particularly costly and daunting because of how many times botanicals typically change hands -- from the fields or forests to the final end product on store shelves.
On the upside, producers have a growing list of certification programs to choose from. These include ECOCERT Fair Trade Standard, German-based Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International, and Swiss-based Fair Wild Foundation -- just to name a few.
The question, of course, is whether consumers really care.
"Market indicators show that a steadily increasing number of stakeholders in the botanical supply chain are indeed deeply concerned," said Josef Brinckmann, author of the report. "This is evidenced by the fact that several new sustainability standards have emerged over the past decade."
Presumably, the number of independent and government-based inspection programs is on the rise in order to meet the growing demand for more certified sustainable and fair-trade botanicals.
Anecdotal evidence supports this theory. A TransFair USA Almanac 2009 report, for example, showed that US imports of Fair Trade Certified herbs from Egypt in 2009 grew 73 percent over 2008. Fair Trade Certified spices grew by 240 percent.
“As 2009 began in the midst of the worst recession in 70 years, we worried that fair-trade producers could lose sales," said Rob Cameron, CEO of Fairtrade Labelling Organizations, to FoodAndDrinkEurope.com, in June. "Instead, consumers across the globe bucked the trend and proved their deep commitment to giving producers a fair deal. Fair trade sales grew in all countries.”