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Why vertical integration is paramount in the explosive CBD market.

August 24, 2018

5 Min Read
Quality control from seed to shelf

If you ask Tim O’Brien, owner of Fitchburg, Wisconsin-based Apple Wellness, CBD products have changed the face of his retail business. “They are flying off the shelves,” he says, thanks to word of mouth, referrals and testimonials singing the praises of this product in support of everything from mood and sleep to digestion, sports recovery and performance and more.

Natural retailers and their shoppers are ground zero for this booming market, with market research firm SPINS reporting that 97 percent of CBD’s roughly $130 million in sales happen in the natural channel. But the natural products industry is a discerning one, defined by educated shoppers and retailers who do their due diligence. In a new category like CBD, one of the best ways for brands to demonstrate and communicate their commitment to quality and traceability is through vertical integration—controlling production every step of the way from seed to shelf.

The value of a vertical CBD business

While vertical integration is a differentiator for any supplement brand, it’s especially important when it comes to hemp and CBD because the finished product’s quality and consistency is completely dependent on quality and consistency across every step of production. 

It starts with the soil. High quality soil is important for all plants, but especially for hemp. Hemp is considered a “phytoremediative” plant, meaning it draws up heavy metals and toxins more aggressively than other crops—hemp was tested to remediate the soil around Chernobyl’s nuclear disaster site. Heavy metals and toxins that could be in hemp can become even more concentrated when the hemp biomass goes through the extraction process. At Boulder, Colorado-based Charlotte’s Web (which is returning to its original name from its current name, CW Hemp), soil health and suitability is studied before planting season.

Charlotte’s Web, which has 66 employees solely dedicated to plant genetics, agriculture and cultivation, tests the soil of each field it is considering planting in well before a decision is made to use the field. On its company operated farms in eastern Colorado, seeds are planted and grown without pesticides and where the dry climate yields better hemp flowers capable of producing high quality CBD. In some cases, Charlotte’s Web partners with contract farmers in Oregon and Kentucky, but even there it provides the hemp seeds and has the same level of quality control as the company does at its Colorado farm. The key for Charlotte’s Web is that it exercises close control over plant genetics, which co-founder Joel Stanley says is critical to ensuring consistency. “Each genetic of hemp has its own phytochemical fingerprint,” he explains. “You cannot treat all hemp like it’s the same.”

Because Charlotte’s Web is vertically integrated, the company can plant the exact plants needed for specific products to maintain product consistency. Quality control then extends to formulation, where Charlotte’s Web ensures quality by testing for microbials, residual solvents, heavy metals and pesticides.

Attaining vertical integration isn’t the easiest way, or the least expensive one, but for Charlotte’s Web, it’s the only and best method to ensure quality every step of the way. Charlotte’s Web sets the highest level of industry standard for knowing its raw materials. “We know where it’s been, where it was harvested, where it started and where it’s going to go,” says Ray Sitorius, director of cultivation at CW Hemp. “We know the weather, we know the conditions, we know who’s touched it, who’s been close to it. This is of utmost importance to maintaining quality and knowing every bottle of product is going to be consistent.”

From seed to shelf ... to self

The next step in the supply chain is retail. Because social media and word of mouth are often consumers’ forays into CBD, shoppers tend to do research before setting foot in a store, says Sindy Wise, Lucky's Market director of apothecary. So retailers need to be able to answer every kind of question from the very basic to the very specific, “everything from where it was grown to how it was extracted to what makes one brand different from another,” she says.

Here, vertical integration benefits retailers by providing the transparency and traceability they need to answer such questions. “Having sourcing, processing and extraction information is very important because each step can be done well or done poorly,” O’Brien adds. “We want to work with brands who do it the right way.”

Wise predicts that hemp will follow the path forged by ingredients like probiotics, which have infiltrated nearly every food, beverage and supplement category as research reveals more and more benefits. Because CBD impacts the endocannabinoid system (ECS)—responsible for appetite, energy, immunity, memory, sleep, mood and more—there are countless areas for research and application across a range of wellness issues, even as researchers just beginning to understand this system itself. 

The bottom line? There’s no slowing down any time soon. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t hear half a dozen testimonials about the efficacy of CBD,” says O’Brien. “It’s a game changer.”

Helping science grow, too

Along the way, investing in research is also critical, because “we have only scratched the surface of what this plant can be used for,” explains Vijay Bachus, senior director of production operations at Charlotte’s Web. In an effort to log CBD products’ effects, Charlotte’s Web partnered with Johns Hopkins University to create an observational research registry.

Plus, because this crop is so new in the U.S., vertical integration itself is a research process, Stanley points out, as Charlotte’s Web has had to determine which genetics, soil and conditions yield the best extracts.

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