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Wild plant ingredients: Addressing the risks for lasting benefits

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Wild plant ingredients are core components of many natural supplements, but the nature of their supply chains carries inherent sustainability risks. FairWild certification can help.

Modern natural supplement and health product industries stand on the shoulders of a rich heritage of traditional remedies and medicinal systems. These often have plant ingredients as core components.  Approximately 30,000 plant species are used globally for medicinal purposes, according to a database supported by the IUCN-SSC Medicinal Plant Specialist Group. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) includes 644 plant species in the official pharmacopeia (J Ethnopharmacol. 2016;194:245-259), the Ayurvedic Pharmacopeia of India refers to 1,200-1,500 plant species (J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med. 2017;22[3]:494–501), and many traditional remedies in Europe include ingredients such as nettle or raspberry leaves, dandelion root and licorice.

This tradition is both built upon and directly utilized by modern day natural supplement and health product businesses, through inclusion of therapeutic ingredients in products and directly in brand orientation and messaging. Already valued at tens of billions in 2018, the market for herbal supplements has been projected to grow beyond US$100 billion by 2026, according to Markets Insider. And with the advent of COVID-19, demand for herbal products is already thought to have seen a surge in 2020, as described in an article at traffic.org.

Good for business?

While this growth in the market might seem good for business, the nature of supply chains for many plant ingredients means there is inherent risk to the survival of many botanical species associated with them. Medicinal and aromatic plants are thought to be predominantly sourced from the wild. While exact data on volumes and sources of ingredients in trade are difficult to obtain, studies have estimated between 60% to 90% by volume are wild collected, as reported at the 2006 IFOAM International Conference on Organic Wild Production.

Species are under pressure; of those assessed against IUCN Global Red List criteria, approximately one in five have been found to be threatened with extinction, according to a report published by Traffic International. There is a human element to the trade as well: Wild plant collectors are generally rural and marginalized, relying on sale of harvests for at least a portion of their income, says the same report.

Indian spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi) is a classic example. Harvested from its range in the Himalayan mountains for only a few weeks a year and pressed to make an essential oil prized in Ayurvedic medicine and aromatherapy, around 15,000 rural people rely on the harvest for a significant portion of their income, according to the Darwin Initiative. Yet large-scale trade led to its listing in Appendix II of CITES—the main agreement that controls international trade in wild animals and plants— and an assessment as “Critically Endangered” against the IUCN Red List. If trade is not managed sustainably, livelihoods of harvesters will suffer, plant populations will dwindle, and businesses will not be able to supply valued products. So, what is the solution?

FairWild certification

Third-party verified certification and labeling programs are one way in which businesses can have confidence in the ingredients they are using and demonstrate their business ethics to consumers. While the number and types of these standards have proliferated over the last decade (one online resource includes 458 “ecolabels”), it is important to comprehensively address both the environmental and human elements of wild plant trade.

Established more than 10 years ago, the FairWild Standard allows businesses at all stages of wild plant ingredient trade chains to demonstrate ecologically, socially and economically sustainable practices. The standard is based on 11 principles, which address environmental sustainability of harvesting, legal and regulatory compliance, fair trading and relationships between collectors and buyers, and community benefits. Certified collector groups get increased financial security and access to a “premium fund” for community projects, while businesses and brands further up the trade chain benefit from full traceability and transparency of the ingredients they are using and a way to demonstrate their stewardship of environment and people to consumers. Participating FairWild brands also report closer and improved relationships with their suppliers, higher quality product and more stability of supplies.

Leading the way

Numerous businesses across a range of sectors already take advantage of the FairWild certification and labeling system. Certified ingredients range from herbal staples, such as licorice root, dandelion root and St. John’s wort, to more recently trending (in American and European markets) “superfoods” such as baobab. Ayurvedic ingredients are also represented in triphala powder, produced from FairWild bibhitaki and haritaki fruit. These ingredients are used in cosmetics, drinks, teas and herbal supplements, including from U.S. brands Traditional Medicinals and Banyan Botanicals, with the FairWild logo displayed on product packaging and website listings to demonstrate certification to consumers. FairWild brands also participate in the annual online “FairWild week” campaign, to raise awareness of the issues around wild plant ingredients among consumers.

Kevin Casey, CEO of Banyan Botanicals, said: “The tradition of Ayurvedic herbalism is thousands of years old, and it relies on many plants that cannot be cultivated. With FairWild, the wildcrafters we work with in India are able to harvest sustainably without compromising their livelihood.”

Make a change

These are our top recommendations for taking the first step (or the next step!) to demonstrate the sustainability of your wild plant ingredients and products:

  • Get to grips with your supply chain. Conduct an audit of all your products and ingredients to get a full picture of what wild plant ingredients you are already using. Many can be from both wild and cultivated sources, so only by tracing back to origin can you be sure of the provenance and risks involved.
  • Review the risk associated with your wild plant ingredients. Whether reputational/brand image risk or supply security, the ecological sustainability and trade practices involved in wild plant collection can present risks for your company and products. Assessment against the FairWild Standard can help to identify and mitigate these risks.
  • Use certified ingredients. If you discover (or were already aware of) wild plant ingredients in your supply chain, consider working with your suppliers to achieve a sustainability certification, such as FairWild, or start using one of the already certified FairWild ingredients.
  • Start reaping the benefits. Using only sustainably and equitably sourced ingredients will give a positive boost to your business, including the ability to communicate about it with your consumers and the public. FairWild celebrates wild plants and all they give to us through “FairWild Week,” held annually in June.

You can find out more about FairWild at the Fair Wild website, where you can see which certified ingredients are available, sign up to the mailing list, and get more information on certification. Together, we can secure a fair and sustainable future for wild plant resources and people.

Emily King is the business engagement officer in the secretariat of the FairWild Foundation—a nonprofit initiative with the mission to secure a fair and sustainable future for wild plant resources and people. She works with current and potential FairWild businesses to help them to make the most of their certification, as well as assisting with wider communication around the importance of sustainable sourcing and the FairWild Standard.

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