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Sustainability & Social Responsibility

Once Again Nut Butter
 
EpiCor

Whether sourcing from land or sea, the natural products industry takes its commitment to sustainability practices and its fellow man to new levels.Here, a sampling of companies explains their efforts, which are an undeniable selling point for partnership.

Resonating With P. L. Thomas

Having supplied the natural products industry for more than half a century, New Jersey based P. L. Thomas Co.Inc. (PLT) has seen firsthand how vital ingredients can be lost if the correct measures aren’t put into place.

“Over the years PLT has lost the opportunity to do business in numerous ingredients, because of either limited supply or lack of reliability of supply. We and our sourcing partners have had to scramble to come up with sufficient supplies of wild crafted botanicals where the harvest is heavily impacted by environmental conditions and/or socio-economic factors,” said President Paul Flowerman, offering an example of gum acacia supplies from the Sudan that are impacted by crop conditions, and the ability and willingness of the population to do the often dangerous jobs of tapping and harvesting.

To that end, sustainability has been an important factor in PLT’s sourcing activities. In the Sudan, for example, the company has partnered for more than a decade with U.K. charity, SOS Sahel, to lease out tankers to deliver water from the Nile to remote villages during the dry seasons. This, plus supplies of seeds, medicine and pumps, helped make it possible for the population to remain in their villages, grow subsistence crops and harvest gum acacia.

In South Africa, PLT’s partners set up plantations of a selected cultivar of Sceletium tortuosum to provide reliable supplies of a studied botanical.“Native knowledge has been honored and remunerated by a royalty program for the San people (includes the Bushmen) directly linked to our sales, and the South African government has showcased this activity as a model for sustainability and fair trade,” said Flowerman.

Further, companies that chose PLT as an ingredient supplier can make the company’s efforts part of their marketing message.For example, business customers for Zembrin®, PLT’s standardized sceletium, are given the opportunity to put the symbol of the San Council on their product.

“I believe the issues of sustainability and fair treatment of workers resonate strongly with many,” said Flowerman.“Today’s consumers validate their principles by making purchasing decisions at least in part based on these ethical choices.” 

Euromed Fills a “GAP” 

As a leading manufacturer of standardized botanical extracts, Pennsylvania based Euromed USA is completely dependent on Mother Nature for its continued corporate health, according to Joe Veilleux, the company’s president and general manager. These extracts come from plants grown all over the world, so the company has to devise plans for the sustainable growth and harvest of its plant materials based on vastly different local systems.

Euromed begins by establishing what it calls GAPs (good agricultural practices) for each botanical. These GAPs include specifications for how the botanical is to be to grown, harvested, dried, transported, etc.; and the testing required at each stage to ensure no contamination from Pesticides, fertilizers, environmental toxins, etc. “For as many of the botanicals as possible, we try and have 100 percent ownership and control over all of the agricultural aspects,” said Veilleux.

For some particularly sensitive plants that can only be grown in underdeveloped countries, Euromed works with local and national governments to ensure the plant’s sustainable growth and harvesting. “A good example of this is pygeum, a botanical from the bark of an African plum tree. Its chemistry only becomes important once the tree has matured, which might take more than 20 years,” Veilleux explained. “Fortunately, there is a sustainable way to harvest the bark from the tree (by taking only relatively small sections at a time) without endangering the tree’s health.” 

However, as the locals are often tempted to harvest all of the tree’s bark to boost their amounts of saleable material, Euromed has worked with the governments of Cameroon, Congo and others to educate the locals, to structure financial incentives and to establish effective monitoring/policing systems to ensure pygeum bark harvesting is only done in a sustainable manner.” 

In 2012, Euromed was awarded with “Green” 14001 ISO (International Standardization Organization) Sustainable Practices Certification that recognizes the sustainability system the company has put in place. Less than one percent of the companies in the world have gained this sustainability certification, according to Veilleux.

This process began more than five years ago, when the company started implementing changes to its manufacturing facilities that include:

• Sophisticated solvent recovery systems that recapture 100 percent of the main solvent used in extraction (ethanol)

• Water purification and wastewater treatment plants onsite at its factories

• Ongoing recycling programs where botanical waste materials are used in animal feed and as mulch 

“This has been a multi-million dollar investment process that has required a commitment at all levels of our company,’ said Veilleux. “[But being] a leader in environmentally friendly production is very important to us.” 

Aker’s Eco-Harvest 

Washington-based Aker BioMarine Antarctic US takes its environmental responsibilities very seriously, especially since its main product, Superba™ Krill, is derived from an abundant but vital species in the Antarctic food chain, according to Becky Wright, the company’s communications and marketing manager. Working with many partners, including the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF-Norway) and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the company has pre-emptively addressed sustainability concerns to keep the krill fishery moving in the right direction. “In fact, Aker BioMarine is the only krill harvesting company that is certified by MSC, which means Superba is not only sustainable, but also 100 percent traceable from sea to shelf.” 

Additional steps for full-scale environmental sustainability include Aker partnering with researchers to measure the krill fishery’s broader environmental impact. “Krill is actually one of the largest underexploited stocks in the oceans; the actual current catch in the Southern Ocean is less than 250,000 tons per year—or 0.35 percent of the biomass,” Wright explained. “These catch limits are strictly controlled by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and are regularly reassessed and updated if necessary.” 

Aker BioMarine actively collaborates with environmental organizations like WWF-Norway and CCAMLR to adopt and promote new standards for operations where the health of the environment is foremost.

Further, the company invented a unique, patented technology, Eco- Harvesting™, that catches krill in an environmentally responsible way, minimizing waste. This technology also successfully prevents by-catches of birds, marine mammals and fish. “Using a specially designed trawl system and direct hose connection between the trawl and the vessel, this technology holds a special mechanism that singles out unwanted by-catch (non-krill species) and releases it unharmed,” Wright said, adding that this gentle harvesting method also restricts environmental impact and prevents the krill from enzymatic degradation, “allowing for greater preservation of all key nutrients in the end products.” 

With its fishing operations conducted with full transparency, stakeholders have confidence that the business is well managed and any effects of the fishery on the environment are documented. “Aker has invested hundreds of millions to create an appropriate infrastructure for the sustainable harvest of krill, regularly contributes to scientific research and continues to share best practices with the industry as a whole to ensure sustainability for all parties,” Wright said.

Tangut: Techniques to Improve Lives 

All of the ingredients in California-based Tangut USA Corporation’s products come from its own organic farm in Tibet.The company’s R&D teams have been studying plants and herbs in this region for years, focusing on potency, efficacy and sustainability. And Tangut only grows and harvests plants that are sustainable and abundant in its natural environment, free from man-made pollution.

“Our mission is to improve lives.Healthy ecosystems and environments are necessary to the survival and flourishing of humans and other organisms,” said Tuan Pham, the company’s director, noting that Tangut has partnered with award-winning biologists and local universities to ensure minimal disturbance of the environment in the Tibetan plateau. “We grow plants such as sea buckthorn and Cistanche tubulosa, which benefits the host environment by controlling floods in the former and reducing droughts in the latter.”

The company also applies the latest technology and techniques in organic farming, such as running water pipes underneath the ground to limit the humidity and avoiding damaging pests and pesticides. Further, Pham explained that Tangut employs experienced local farmers who help the company apply best practices to maximize the full potential of plants, using every part, while preserving its capacity to grow and remain diverse and productive over time.

The company has received organic certifications for two of its plants and is waiting on certification for a third. “It is a painstaking process, but definitely rewarding,” said Pham. “For example in 2012, Tangut sea buckthorn was certified wild-crafted and organic by the three top agencies in the world: USDA, EU and JAS (Japanese Agriculture Standards).We have incorporated the Organic Certification seals in all packaging and marketing efforts, and have seen this make a large difference when viewed in comparison with similar ingredient-based products that are not organic.” 

The company views social responsibility as equal in importance, but separate from its sustainability efforts. “Social responsibility relates to our commitment to improve lives by behaving ethically and contributing to the quality of life of our workforce, local community and society at large,” said Pham, adding that Tangut’s farmers work under local fair trade agreements and are well equipped and trained to perform their daily tasks.The company engages in activities such as building a school for a local community damaged by fire and contributing to organizations such as Girls, Inc. of Orange County, CA.

Ixoreal’s Expansive Notion of Family 

As a vertically integrated company offering just one product, KSM-66 Ashwagandha, a full-spectrum extract of the root of the ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera) plant, Ixoreal BioMed in India has a strong understanding of the importance of sustainability. “Because we operate our own farms, we have a very real experiential sense that the sources are not limitless and that they need to be nurtured and replenished,” said CEO Kartikeya Baldwa.

“Sustainability is a top concern for us both in our day-to-day operations and our long-term strategic planning.” 

The most important step the company put in place, according to Baldwa, is in its organizational mindset, beginning with the chairman herself. “She makes sure that every employee is educated on the importance of sustainability and the harm that would come from the decay of the ecosystem that provides us the ashwagandha plant,” he said, adding that employees are rewarded in their annual reviews for suggesting changes that would preserve natural resources better.

The two sets of Ixoreal’s operations where sustainable measures have been put in place are:

• Farming operations: the company employs best practices, such as no use of chemical pesticides or fertilizers, a modern crop rotation regimen, a sophisticated water channeling and re-use system and it follows good agricultural and collection practices (GACP).

• Extraction plant operations: the company’s unique extraction process technology is respectful of natural resources, and took 14 years of R&D to develop, according to Baldwa. “[This] ‘Green Chemistry’ process uses only natural solvents—no chemical solvents or alcohol—and there are no effluents released that are harmful to the environment,” he said.

Another key resource of Ixoreal is in the workers that operate its farms.“Ixoreal BioMed is part of a family business group. We have an expansive notion of ‘family’ that includes the owners, the employees and their relatives, and the people living in the communities that we occupy,” Baldwa explained.

For this reason, Ixoreal operates social outreach and charity programs focusing on promoting health and education in the local communities by establishing schools, hospitals, community centers and parks. The company also buys heavily from local businesses to contribute to their economic well-being and sustenance.For example, as a sponsor for a recent industry event, Ixoreal distributed bamboo folders handcrafted by artisans from native tribes in Tripura, an agrarian region of northeastern India.

“We chose this folder because our values are consonant with these artisans and bamboo,” said Baldwa. “Bamboo grows rapidly and is strong yet flexible.The artisans harvest bamboo in a manner that ensures rejuvenation and conservation of nature and its resources.” The bamboo product economy supports 8.6 million farm workers and craftsmen.

Barlean’s: Establishing an Emotional Connection 

Sustainable ingredient sourcing is more important with consumers today than ever, according to Andreas Koch, marketing director with Washington-based Barlean’s, a company that “has always walked this talk since the first flax oil drop was pressed 25 years ago.” 

“Barlean’s has an incredible four generations of sustainable family fishing heritage, and the company still retains its relations with the same North American, organically certified farmers,” said Koch.“The Barlean’s family prides itself on treating every flaxseed farmer fairly, which is why these ongoing relationships have ultimately benefited Barlean’s consumers since they are getting the freshest and highest quality.” 

The company considers its adherence to sustainable fishing practices, preservation of endangered species and governmental fishing laws of upmost importance, Koch explained. “We take great care in minimizing environmental impact and in following the governmental regulations in the areas off the coasts of Norway, Peru and Alaska to prevent overfishing and endangering other species.”

In addition to Barlean’s commercial family fishery being 100 percent sustainable:

• All packing materials are biodegradable

• Its pressed flax “leftovers” are provided to local farmers to enrich milk and eggs with omega-3

• It uses only all-natural products in cleaning its facility and equipment 

Futher, Barlean’s was recognized as one of America’s 100 Eco-Friendly Companies when it was selected to the Green Patriot Green 100 list.

The company’s flaxseed oil has always been QAI certified, USDA Organic and is the world’s first certified Non-GMO.

(“Barlean’s has remained committed to avoiding GMO ingredients since its founding,” said Koch.) Yet it is also certified by newer organizations focused on the sustainability and the environment such as the MSC and International Fish Oil Standards (IFOS).

All of these certifications are on Barlean’s labels and marketing materials, and for good reason, according to Koch.

“When consumers compare two similar brand products, the one with a philanthropic commitment will usually win over the shopper’s decision. Why? Because ‘emotion’ was triggered in the behavioral process which is quite powerful,” said Koch.

“The type of consumer buying a natural product holds a greater value to transparency. [These] consumers are smarter, savvier and more critical— beyond what’s on the ingredient panel, they want to know where its sourced, what are we doing to ‘give back’ and how ethical the company is,” he added.“It’s not enough to make ‘great’ products, consumers want a ‘pay it forward’ difference they can make.” 

Beginning in 2013, Owner Bruce Barlean is making a “purpose” driven commitment for the entire company that is reflective in its marketing materials.

Nordic LEEDS the Way 

A producer of premium omega-3 fish oil since 1995, California-based Nordic Naturals has always had a vested interest in the health of the oceans, and on sustainable fishing in particular, according to Chief Medical Officer Keri Marshall, MS, ND.

“The fish we use to produce our omega oils are a renewable, but not inexhaustible natural resource. They are also not independent of the larger marine ecosystems that they help comprise,” she said. “We want to ensure that our use of this resource allows fish stocks to remain viable for years to come, so we only source fish from fisheries that have a record of good management, sustainability and that are abundant for the foreseeable future. We also use fishing methods that reduce bycatch and ecosystem damage, and we abide by strict quotas determined by monitoring agencies of the countries where we source our fish.” 

When it comes to fish oil production, the company’s processing facility in Arctic Norway received MSC Chain of Custody certification last November. “[This] certification is a comprehensive traceability program,” said Marshall. “It ensures that MSC-labeled products are sourced from a fishery that is MSC certified, and it protects buyers and the fishery from fraudulent labeling.” To obtain Chain of Custody certification, Nordic Naturals had to pass an independent audit that was conducted by an accredited certification body, and will undergo annual surveillance audits to demonstrate that it continues to meet the MSC standard.

Yet sustainability extends to Nordic’s other corporate practices as well. The company moved into its new LEED Gold-certified headquarters in Watsonville, CA, just two years ago.

“LEED is a voluntary certification process that emphasizes energy and environmental design in construction. It aims to cut down on the use of toxic building materials in order to maintain a healthy atmosphere for employees, and lowers the use of energy to both save money on utilities and lessen our carbon footprint,” Marshall explained, adding that the steps included architectural planning and construction by LEED specialists, and a final certification process that awarded the designation in April 2012.“LEED Gold certification was the culmination of a longer process toward sustainable business that also saw Nordic Naturals received designation as a Monterey Bay Area Green Business.” 

As a company dedicated to supporting health, Nordic Naturals believes its motivation and actions should be similar to those of its colleagues in the industry: a socially responsible business ethic.“The natural products industry cannot provide products that support health on the one hand, but engage in manufacturing that diminishes it, or hurts the planet, on the other,” said Marshall.“That’s why Nordic Naturals goes to such lengths to integrate our mission with socially responsible and sustainable business practices.”

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