Three months ago, just as the pandemic was settling in, the Council for Responsible Nutrition was swiftly working to ensure the dietary supplement industry was recognized as essential when I received a call from a member. The concern was not about his business; he was confident his manufacturing facility would be able to stay open and keep producing vitamins for consumers anxious about their own health. Instead, he asked how to ensure that his workers could get back and forth to work without being hassled by law enforcement. He noted that many of them are people of color and would likely get stopped or at least surveilled making their way to and from the plant.
CRN helped our members to create wallet-size cards and authorized letters their employees could carry if questioned by police as to why they were out, a very practical role for a trade association to fulfill. But my member’s words have stayed with me, “… you know, many of them are people of color, so they are more apt to get stopped.”
Since that time, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks have joined those whose names we have come to know all too well—Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and Eric Garner—and too many others whose names we don’t know. So I’ve spent some time over the past few weeks doing some introspection. Now, I sadly confess I’m no civil rights warrior; I’d be the first to concede I’m late to this activism, so I want to proceed with humility and meekness here.
I was raised on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, which, in many respects, might have been the Deep South. The local public school system in my county finally integrated the two separate, but definitely not equal, school systems in 1970, the year between my kindergarten and first grade. I’ve spent my adulthood making sure I don’t pass on the prejudices I grew up thinking were acceptable. I’ll quickly admit I’m still learning to appreciate words like “privilege,” “systemic,” “unconscious bias” and “micro-aggression.” I’m very much a work in progress.
But what I do know is that racial injustice is wrong. And we need to acknowledge that disparities based solely on one’s skin color are still far too common and need to be addressed.
As I think about the dietary supplement and functional food industry, an industry I have been proud to serve for the past 15 years, it’s easy to convince myself that these issues don’t impact us; that these concerns are beyond my trade association’s mission. And that would also be wrong.
What must it be like to worry on a daily basis that the institutions intended to protect us may be disoriented toward intimidation and oppression based on race? If a drive to the grocery store to buy supplements carries the risk of being profiled, a walk through a department store includes being surveilled, or a trip to the convenience store could lead to a knee at your neck? Everyone deserves to feel safe in their homes, comfortable taking a run after work, and driving to the store.
Racial injustice by our legal institutions must change. We need to break the silence and temerity.
But systemic injustice by police is not the end of the story either. We are an industry that serves 77% of U.S. consumers—ones of all races. Every one of them should have access to health care, and not just to our products, but medical professionals, emergency rooms, lab testing and specialists. Too often, the long history of racial disparities in this country means access to health care is essentially denied. And while we’re at it, this industry is uniquely positioned to help close the pervasive gap in health among minority communities. Let’s put our minds to addressing that along with encouraging supplement companies owned and led by minorities. When we talk of wellness, it should mean wellness for all.
The supplement industry is a major economic engine helping to employ more than 750,000 Americans. CRN’s recent economic study of the industry indicates these are relatively good paying jobs. Let’s be sure that all of them provide a living wage and opportunities for promotion are not tipped to favor one group. We rely on line workers as the first and last defense in manufacturing to ensure we are producing high quality products; they deserve a just income and advancement as well as our gratitude and respect.
But it’s not just about line workers; the disparities get worse up the org chart. In this time of reflection, I have also considered how few faces of color there are at our trade shows (which, like everyone, I’m hoping will soon return), and in the C-suites of the companies I routinely visit. I think about CRN’s own board of directors and committee members, and I think we can do better.
Addressing these disparities is not just about righting past wrongs or creating more diverse photographs for our advertising and stockholder brochures. Silence and tolerance of social injustice and racial inequality imply acceptance. Our companies will be richer and more vibrant from many perspectives and viewpoints at the board table and in product development, marketing and quality control. The more we understand our consumers, the better able we are to offer products that meet their needs and health concerns.
Starting this conversation is difficult; acting on it is even harder. I’m starting by listening, openly and empathetically. I’m looking at our own hiring record, and examining what unconscious biases may exist that would make CRN less than welcoming to everyone. We will engage in sensitivity training for our staff and consider ways to encourage more participation at our events and in our committees. We will make a concerted effort to produce a more diverse board of directors, reflective at least of our diverse consumers, even as we strive to build a more diverse industry.
I begin this road with humility and openness to listen. I acknowledge I don’t have the answers—and may not even be asking the right questions. But I’m willing to start this journey. And I hope others in this industry will join me. CRN’s chairman opened our June board meeting with a moment of silent reflection, asking for calm minds to find solutions, a strong will to work for justice, and open hearts to strive for peace. Those seem like good places to start.
Steve Mister is president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition.