Fair trade botanical supplements save dying tradition, help families

A Q&A with Traditional Medicinal's Josef Brinckmann reveals the complexities and impact surrounding fair trade supplements.

About 3,000 or so botanical species are traded globally, many eventually making their way to teabags, herbal tinctures and supplements in the United States. The majority of these herbs are wild collected, often in remote areas in developing nations. Increasingly, many of these botanicals are becoming fair trade certified.

Josef BrinckmannThe story behind what these fair trade seals mean is more complex and heartening than many realize, as revealed in this recent conversation with Josef Brinckmann, vice president of research and development for Sebastopol, Calif.-based Traditional Medicinals. Brinckmann is on the FairWild Foundation board of trustees and the Fair Trade Labeling Organization commission for herbal teas.

Natural Foods Merchandiser: Why is fair trade important for botanicals?

Josef Brinkmann: The vast majority of botanicals in commerce are not farmed, they are wild collected. This tradition of wild collection is changing. All over the world, young people are leaving remote rural areas and going to urban areas. The average collector is now between 50 and 90 years old. Unless there is a way for people to make most, or all, of their income from wild collection to support their families, the tradition of wild collecting will come to a stop.

NFM: How does fair trade go beyond a fair wage?

JB: We’ve found that it’s not enough to just pay the fair trade premiums; we have to engage even deeper. So in a fair trading system, a company can’t really be buying anonymously off the open market, it really requires investment and relationship building—that’s the sustainable model. For example, we schedule periodic visits to see what we can do collaboratively that would improve the quality of life for the communities we purchase from, to let them know that we are interested in working very closely together.

NFM: That’s interesting because there’s a perception that developing communities don’t want companies to be involved in how the community spends its money, but what you are saying is different. Why?

JB: The way the FairWild system works is that the collectors themselves and then the collection organization and then the final buyer collaboratively discuss each year what the extra monies will be used for to benefit the community. This level of working together is a way to make an investment and commitment in relationship building, to show that we would like [a community] to keep doing this and that it’s not a risk. Small collectors don’t speculate [with their collection businesses]; they don’t say, ‘I wonder if I pick this if someone will buy it?” You really have to cause [them to engage in collection].

NFM: Does fair trade protect the environment in any way?

JB: Some certifications do and others don’t, so you have to look at each standard. FairWild links ecological, economical and sociological sustainability; so in that case, the wild selection has to be proven sustainable through resource assessment, monitoring and management, and there has to be evidence that all of the fair trade principles are handled as well. Our belief is that a prerequisite to ecological sustainability is social sustainability; you can’t really separate people, plants and nature. In other words, to implement an ecological sustainability standard like organic without social sustainability is not sustainable.

NFM: Would you like to see things go toward one fair-trade certification?

JB:  When I was at Biofach this year, I sat on a panel where there was discussion about [fair trade certification] being handled like organic, with an EU regulation so that everybody is on the same page.  In principal, it’s not a bad idea; but there are different types of considerations for different types of products in different countries and in different communities. So it might be easier said than done. Right now we are where we were in the late '80s and early '90s with organic.

NFM: What would be the next step toward a unified certification?

JB: The next step might be coming up with ways to have acceptability of each other’s standards. For example, [Traditional Medicinals] has a couple of products where 50 percent are FairWild-certified and 50 percent are Fair Trade-certified ingredients. It would make more sense for us to be able to communicate that this product is 100 percent fair trade rather than saying on the side of the box that this product contains 50 percent Fair Trade ingredients and 50 percent FairWild ingredients. To the consumer this might be a little complicated and challenging.

NFM: What does exploitation of botanical workers look like when fair-trade practices are not in place?

JB: I can’t think of stark examples like with the cocoa workers where you have child labor, etc. But you do though have people who are in many countries in the conventional herb trade who are at the lowest rung of the economic ladder who are just barely getting by from collecting plants. With fair trade they are guaranteed consistent business at minimum fair trade prices, plus a guarantee of investment in their communities. So, it’s not so much moving from exploitation to non-exploitation. It’s moving from situations of poverty to situations where we can improve the quality of life in the village. For example, say people spend a certain amount of time everyday going to get water, but now [fair trade monies] have been invested in water catchment or a well, so people don’t have to spend hours getting water everyday anymore, so quality of life is improved.

NFM: How can the natural products industry and retailers promote fair trade botanicals more?

JB: I think that fair trade is doing well here in the United States, but there are [cost] thresholds. Retailers and others say that you can’t go beyond a [price] point; and we notice that if we raise our price past a certain point, we can see cause and effect—sales slow down. But then if you ask them if they want these attributes, they say yes. So I think we are still in the infancy, in the pioneer times trying to see what people will support, what’s important to them. [Fair trade botanicals are] very strong in Western Europe, so I have every reason to believe they will get stronger here. 

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