Editorial: Sustainability For More Than The Bottom Line

By Len Monheit

It’s no secret to many of us that the herbal sector and the supplements industry in general have media challenges that manifest as negative or selective coverage, and a lot of energy over many years has gone into discussions over what can be done to create a more positive relationship. Numerous groups have media outreach programs, organizations like Vitamin Angel Alliance keep doing their good work with some mainstream media pickup, but it always seems to be one step forward, and two steps back. We typically know where our vulnerabilities are, but this morning’s headlines might signal the widening of a front.

Most typically, quality issues tend to trigger the ‘two steps back’ part of the formula. We can, as an industry, tout positive studies about supplements and natural health products, but if consumers do not have faith in the quality of the products, then their belief in the positive studies is seriously compromised. Faith in quality is quite often a faith in the ‘general quality’, rather than in the quality of selective brands.

The other factor that tends to appear in a negative context, closely tied to the issue of quality, is the perceived inadequacy of regulation. For each FTC or FDA action that makes headlines (which should reinforce the contention that the real issue is enforcement resources), in the minds of many consumers, the perception that stronger rules are needed actually increases.

And of course there are other issues where we trip up, generally related to supporting the efficacy of our products in the face of neutral to negative studies. While we clamor, as an industry, for more research resources, we must face the realities of neutral, negative and positive studies, and the confusion these outcomes and their interpretation will have for consumers.

Scanning this morning’s headlines a widely distributed and echoed headline caught my attention: ‘Herbal industry's appeal puts elms, other plants at risk’ (http://www.wisconsinrapidstribune.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060810/WRT03/608100504/1844/WRTbusiness). The AP article describes how thieves have torn off the bark of a slippery elm for “profit in the lucrative and burgeoning herbal-remedy market”. The article goes on to quote John Garrison, a National Park Service spokesman for the

Blue Ridge Parkway
: " There's a huge market in botanicals going into herbal medicines. Virtually everything on public lands has a market." Later in the article, Armando Gonzalez-Stuart, a researcher at the University of Texas El Paso/Austin Cooperative Pharmacy Program, observes that the “ herbal industry should cultivate slippery elms on private property and harvest the bark in a way that preserves the trees.”

Although various spins were put on the headline, there is no doubt that this issue represents yet another PR hit against the supplements sector. This is despite industry efforts and commitments, in many cases, towards sustainable and environmentally friendly approaches in harvesting and production, and in many cases, active protection efforts and support for the agencies involved in these protective programs.

Other than getting frustrated at yet another blow and lack of a ‘fair shake’, is there anything that can be done?

Nutrition Business Journal offers annual awards for ‘Environment and Sustainability’, in addition to the more widely acknowledged awards for ‘Social Responsibility’. And at each Expo East, The Socially Responsible Business Awards (SRBA) are presented, recognizing those companies with exceptional track records in ethics, accountability, governance, employment practices, business relationships, financial return, products and services, community involvement and environmental protection. And, the keynote speaker is a business leader at the forefront of the socially responsible business movement.

Switching gears just a bit for a second, earlier this week, I attended a ‘Try Healthy Forum’ that brought together industry and government from the province of Alberta, several states and representatives from Mexico, covering the natural and organic industries. The objective of the conference was trade stimulation with several new relationships formed. At this event, several things struck me. Firstly, with government as the active facilitator, new international relationships were possible, even for small young organizations. Secondly, there are so many good stories – excellent companies and products, envisioned and championed by entrepreneurs with character and commitment, which are largely left untold. Thirdly, this is the type of attitude and approach that is part of industry’s legacy and must be part of its future, and finally, that there is a fundamental disconnect between the stories, passion and commitment and our ability to communicate this to the broader consumer audience. Sure, there are those passionately committed consumers that already share so many ideals, but I’m speaking of the mainstream majority who really want to know about and respond to good ‘character’, ‘commitment’, ‘ideal’, socially responsible’, ‘environmentally sustainable’, business practices and belief systems.

There are so many unacknowledged efforts underway that show commitment to responsibility and sustainability. The AP story I referred to is one aspect, but just as important are industry’s efforts to do the right thing in this area – and frequently last of all for commercial or opportunity gain.

This story too must be told.

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