Ethical Practices in the Botanical Industry with Ann Armbrecht

Cultivating Ethical Roots: A Conversation with Ann Armbrecht from the Sustainable Herbs Program

Episode Overview

Episode Topic: In this episode of NutraPreneur, Ann Armbrecht takes us on a journey that led to the establishment of the Sustainable Herbs Program, unveiling pivotal experiences that fueled her dedication to promoting sustainable and ethical practices in the botanical industry. The program aims to create a movement supporting high-quality herbal products and transparency in sourcing. Ann discusses key initiatives that have significantly influenced the industry’s approach to ethical sourcing and sustainability. Furthermore, she explores how the program navigates complex challenges by facilitating multi-stakeholder collaborations, inspiring companies to embrace higher standards in their herbal product offerings.

Lessons You’ll Learn: Learn about the crucial role of education in driving sustainability in the botanical industry and understand the significance of transparent sourcing practices. The segment offers insights into the challenges involved in promoting ethical practices and how collaboration is key to overcoming them. Ann discusses how transparency builds trust and shares real-world examples of the program’s impact.

About Our Guest: Ann Armbrecht, the director of the Sustainable Herbs Program, brings a unique blend of anthropological perspective and passion for herbal medicine to her role. Her journey involves a deep exploration of the herbal industry, from studying with Rosemary Gladstar to producing a film celebrating the healing power of herbal medicine. Ann’s commitment to fostering change in the industry shines through her work with the Sustainable Herbs Program.

Topics Covered: The discussion spans the creation of a movement supporting high-quality herbal products, education on sustainability, and the program’s role in facilitating multi-stakeholder collaborations. Ann sheds light on the challenges faced by the industry, the role of transparency, and the need for relationships at every level of the supply chain. The conversation provides a comprehensive exploration of the Sustainable Herbs Program’s impact on industry practices and consumer awareness.

Our Guest: Ann Armbrecht: Anthropologist, Author and Advocate for Sustainable Herbal Practices

Ann Armbrecht, a distinguished writer and anthropologist, holds a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from Harvard University. Her journey began with ethnographic research in Nepal’s upper Arun Valley, leading her to explore herbal medicine and co-produce the documentary “Numen: The Nature of Plants” with filmmaker Terrence Youk.

Currently serving as the Director of the Sustainable Herbs Program, Ann actively develops educational content on botanical sustainability. Her latest book, “The Business of Botanicals,” eloquently chronicles her exploration of the global herb industry.

Beyond her literary achievements, Ann has been a Visiting Research Scholar at Dartmouth College, a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar documenting medicinal plant supply chains in India, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Middlebury College.

Her earlier works include the award-winning memoir “Thin Places: A Pilgrimage Home” and “Settlements of Hope: An Account of Tibetan Refugees in Nepal.” Ann’s multifaceted career reflects a unique blend of anthropology, herbalism, and environmental consciousness, solidifying her as a trailblazer in understanding humanity’s relationship with the natural world.

Ethical Practices in the Botanical Industry with Ann Armbrecht
Sustainable Herbs Program

Episode Transcript:

Ann Armbrecht: Someone talked about scavengers, and that became a theme like the difference between a scavenger and which seems like this extractive get everything you can to replenishing relationship. So how at every level of the supply chain, not just what can you get, but what can you plant? There’s so much talk about regenerative which is overused word, but the idea is how can we nourish, how can we give back? How can we feed the system and not just be fed?

Bethany Jolley: Welcome to NeutraPreneur, the Neutra industry podcast. I’m your host, food scientist and nutraceuticals consultant Bethany Jolley. Each episode we will be exploring what it takes to thrive in the nutraceutical industry. From conversations with successful nutraceutical entrepreneurs to venture capitalists to tech executives whose innovations are reshaping the nutraceuticals industry. We explore the innovations and trends that are shaping the next generation of nutraceutical businesses.

Welcome back to NutraPreneur, the hub for unveiling revolutionary insights into the nutraceutical industry. I’m your host, Bethany. Today, we have the privilege of hosting Ann Armbrecht, the esteemed director of the Sustainable Herbs Program, working under the guidance of the American Botanical Council. With her background as an anthropologist and a deep passion for promoting sustainability and transparency in the botanical industry, and has been instrumental in driving awareness and fostering collaborations for higher standards of ethical sourcing and sustainability. Welcome, Ann, it’s so great to have you today.

Ann Armbrecht: Thank you so much. It’s great to be here.

Bethany Jolley: Could you share with us the journey that led you to establish the Sustainable Herbs program, and just highlight those pivotal experiences that shaped your dedication to promoting sustainable and ethical practices in the botanical industry?

Ann Armbrecht: Sure. So there are a couple of different threads or experiences. First, I was studying herbal medicine with Rosemary Gladstar, who’s the godmother of herbal medicine, traditional Western herbal medicine in the US, and being drawn to the vision that she shared about our relationship with plants as not just a product we ingest, but really to heal our relationship with the planet. And also that health is much broader than any particular medicine. It’s really our relationship with each other and our heart and spirit and all of those. And so that broad vision of herbal medicine captured my curiosity. And my husband is a filmmaker. And so we produced a film, Newman, that celebrated the healing power of herbal medicine. And as we were sharing that film, I saw that for most people, herbal medicine was not this kind of answer to all the problems around our relationship with the earth. It was really a product on a shelf. And so to reach that audience, I needed to understand that industry more. And as I began to dig in a bit and also as we were producing Newman, we interviewed some of the founders of some of the key herb companies about the values that drive their work. So herbalists that I studied with talked about the importance of their relationship with the plants and the intention with which they harvest the plants and make the medicine as part of the medicine as part of its effect.

Ann Armbrecht: And yet most of those herbs were sourced on global supply chains. And so I was I wanted to know, okay, what difference does not even what difference does intention make? How do you even find intention? What does that word even mean in these global supply networks? So that was another question. And then a third was a class that I taught in the anthropology department at Dartmouth College, where I had students as a final project, trace any object they wanted to the source. And so this was in the late 1990s before everyone was tracing objects to the source. And the last day everyone shared what they found, and they were looking at the social and ecological impacts of, say, a safety pin or a piece of paper. And those impacts were horrifying. And we sat there were 12 students in the class. It was a seminar, and we sat around listening to those impacts, and everybody got quieter. And just the weight in the room as we were struck by the enormous consequences of our ways of living. And so I wanted to do something about it. And so I thought, okay, any industry can make a difference than this one. That’s all around healing and healing products should be. So that’s what started me following herbs to see what I found.

Bethany Jolley: That’s really incredible. I think it’s quite eye-opening. If you really know the source of where certain things are coming from. Like you said, a lot of us just get caught up in thinking it’s something we pull off the shelf at our local market, but we don’t really know the story behind it and where it came from. So I think that’s great that you’re doing all of that research and trying to be intentional about where you source your herbs and your products and educating people. And the Sustainable Herbs program aims to create a movement that supports high-quality herbal products and provides that transparency in the sourcing process. Yes. So how does the program educate consumers and companies about sustainability in the botanical industry, and what are some of the key initiatives that have significantly impacted the industry’s approach?

Ann Armbrecht: So it’s been a journey, and as I’ve gone along, I’ve done different things really started. So I started with this idea, okay, what difference does knowing the stories make? So I traveled around with my husband. We produced a series of short videos to educate primarily really the herbal products, consumer herbalists who really are already concerned and asking these questions. And we produced videos around each step of the supply chain and then some videos around key issues as that. I posted that on this website. And then I was realized, though, especially with changes in the herb industry, as it’s harder for smaller herbalists to have actually a company, and it’s to really make a difference. It had to be on the scale of the companies that are sourcing their ingredients at trade shows like Supply Side West and going to Expo West. And so that’s when I formed the partnership with American Botanical Council, and then my work shifted to working with companies to understand the challenges that they’re facing, and then work with them to identify ways to address those challenges. And I guess the three ways that I think about the scale or the levels of change that I’m working on first is the importance of seeing the system, like understanding what it takes to bring herbs from around. Some of these companies will be sourcing 200 to 300 botanicals, all of which have different requirements around quality and drying and processing.

Ann Armbrecht: And that’s a huge amount to handle and manage. And yet in those on the outside of that industry, and I include myself here too, as I began this journey, can be really quick to judge, like, oh, that’s bad, that’s good. And so the first step is understanding that it’s much more complex than good and bad. And so that’s I wrote my book, The Business of Botanicals. And then and have created things that are directed toward a general audience. And I’m now working on some more of that last spring with Sebastian Paul, who was the co-founder of Pukka Herbs and now one of the founders of the Herbal Alliance in the UK. We organized a half-day conference bringing together experts who can talk about the connection between sourcing and quality to really show that it matters. It’s not just sustainability is an extra thing. It matters how the herbs are handled, because that means people are paying attention to making sure it’s the right plant, it’s the right species, that it’s dried correctly so that the constituents are actually going to be in it, so that those things actually really directly impact that finished product on the shelf in addition to the health of the whole ecosystem. So that’s one thing. And then with. Is for seeing the system. When had I began organizing a series of webinars? That was my intention was to bring in voices that aren’t often able to make its way to those big trade shows and to share their perspectives on issues around, say, certifications, what it takes to become organic certified, what regenerative organic certification, what that means talking about what farmers are doing around soil health, to just educate on some of the key issues, what it takes to maintain relationships with suppliers through the supply chain.

Ann Armbrecht: And those were directed at a general audience, but more specifically at people in the industry who are working on those issues. And so just for them to learn from others. And then a second level is tools and resources. And so I created this toolkit, which there’s so much information available online, a lot of it for different sectors like the food sector, which is different issues than sourcing botanicals. But there’s relevance. And so I just gathered all those tools and resources into one place as much for my own value. So I didn’t have 9 million tabs open, just yeah, just collecting all those resources in one place. I think I still have yet to really use that toolkit in an effective way. I’m figuring that out. And the third thing is collaboration, which to me is the thing I’m most excited about. And I can say more about that, but I’ll let you say yes.

Bethany Jolley: And so, as you mentioned, there is a lot of complex challenges that are involved. So how does the Sustainable Herbs program facilitate multi-stakeholder collaborations and best practice sharing to really inspire more companies to embrace these higher standards of sustainability and transparency in their herbal offerings?

Ann Armbrecht: Yeah. That’s another everybody’s talking about multi-stakeholder collaboration. What does that really mean? So the first trade show first time I went to supply side West I co-facilitated with Holly Johnson from APA the American Herbal Products Association a panel around sourcing. And afterwards, I realized we didn’t share anything new. Everybody knows what needs to happen transparency, better relationships, contracts, higher prices and yet it keeps on happening. So I wanted to understand how do you get beneath that to really address the root causes. And at the same time, I came across work from the Presencing Institute, which is out of MIT. And so awareness-based systems change. And the idea is to bring about change, transformative change that’s needed. It takes both an internal change and an awareness of the whole system. It has to hold both. So with Julie Artz, who’s senior faculty from the Presencing Institute, we set up a series of what we call the Learning Lab Sustainable Program Learning Lab, which was four sessions going through what’s called the U. Which is the process of the Presencing Institute. And the idea is we can’t change the system from the same place we’re in. And so we need to go on this journey so that new actions can emerge. And so it’s a process of listening to voices that we don’t often hear, and then also opening our own hearts and listening in a different way, and then taking action and seeing what emerges when we take that action and learning from that and then modifying it.

Ann Armbrecht: And so we did the first learning lab in about 30 or 40 people participated at the beginning. At the end, it was around 20. And then about ten people continued to meet monthly from different companies. And then the following year we held another online learning lab and more people attended maybe 40 or 50, and maybe at the end, there were 30 or 35 who still participated. And that group has continued to meet. And the first year we defined our mission statement of working together. And then the second we began to do a series of case studies to share ideas around responding to some of those intractable issues that we identified in the Learning Lab and that group has. There is a quality of connection that’s hard to describe, but someone said it’s like bringing the values of herbalism into the industry, and we all are coming with the intention of we’re not just making these products to make a profit. Everybody’s in a company, and so they know the company needs to have a business case and be profitable. But it’s really to care as a vehicle for healing the planet, using healing the plants, the people and the places from the seed to the finished product. And so that’s like the big frame.

Ann Armbrecht: And so then we’re identifying, okay, what are some of the key issues we need to understand more and then collaborate to take action on. And then this past September, out of that group, around 23 of us gathered in Appalachia for a three-and-a-half-day learning journey, which was amazing. I was able to get some funding from John Monsell at Virginia Tech. He helped us pay for the airfare for people from South Africa to people from South Africa to people from Nicaragua came someone from Peru, and then some people from Europe and the UK and then the US. And we gathered to really do a deep dive into the issues in sourcing Appalachian wild-harvested herbs, which are the issues that face the challenges everywhere. It’s low prices for the wild harvesting community, overharvesting, a lack of understanding, the extent of overharvesting, what the issues are and what they aren’t really economically depressed areas of the world, aging, wild harvesting communities. So we just listened for three and a half days, and then the last day we asked, what can we do together as a group that we can’t do alone, and had a discussion about that. And then if I had 20% more courage, what would I do? So the idea was to tap into what needs to happen, and then each what’s our part to hold and carry forward.

Bethany Jolley: I think, like you said, education and learning is key for you to fulfil this mission and to really help other companies and consumers understand what your mission is and why it’s so important. So how does the program really empower end users with the knowledge and tools that are needed to make informed decisions about herbal products that they’re purchasing, and how do they understand the impact of what choices they’re making and how it impacts human health and social equity and biodiversity?

Ann Armbrecht: That’s such an interesting challenge. And so I was just in West Virginia, where I’m from, visiting my family, and I gave three different talks. One was at a Rotary Club. So business leaders of Charleston, West Virginia, which is one of the most conservative and economically depressed states in the country. Second was to an older book club, and the third was to the conservation committee for the garden club. And each one of those I could reach in a different way. So it made me really think about, okay, how do you communicate this message? How do we know to care and know what to do? And the questions that people asked were different. So I’m thinking a lot about that. What’s the message and how to communicate the message? One thing I do think is key is the book club. People especially wanted to know what product to buy. And while that’s important that I think what’s ultimately more important is that we engage in the process of learning ourselves so that, I think, find a company that you respect, whose products you trust and ask them and demand that they give you the answers.

Ann Armbrecht: Sometimes they won’t give you the answers, or it will be somebody in marketing who doesn’t really know the answers and keep asking them because that ultimately is a way to get those companies to change more. And I talk about this in my book for a company to everybody’s talking about transparency. Any company is only going to say so much, and it all comes through the marketing departments. And so it can feel very curated. But there’s a reason also for that, because if another company is saying they’re all doing everything right, then there’s no it’s a big risk for a company to share not just the stories that make good marketing stories. And so that requires an educated public to know, like, okay, thank you for telling me you don’t have the answers figured out. I’m still here, and I’m going to see purchasing your products as a way to help you fulfil your mission and continue on this journey. It’s a two-way thing. It’s not just us demanding more, it’s us learning and educating ourselves.

Bethany Jolley: This episode is brought to you by Nutra If your business needs credit card processing, that fully integrates with most major neutral software platforms, offers the lowest industry prices, and has built-in features like recurring billing, $0 trials, and chargeback prevention. And visit us at for a free online quote. You’re always going to be continuously learning new things, because it’s just such a vast scale of different components that you have to learn about and work through, and find what is the best option. How are we not only sourcing these healing herbs, but like you said, healing the planet as well as we do so. And I think transparency really plays a crucial role in building trust between consumers and companies. So how does the Sustainable Herbs program advocate for greater transparency in the supply chain, and what measures have been implemented to ensure that the end users have access to all of this comprehensive information about the sourcing of these herbs?

Ann Armbrecht: That’s really what I was just trying to say, is that it’s a risk for a company to be transparent beyond the stories about happy farmers or happy wild harvesting. Doing this. So how to share the messier side of what it takes to bring herbs from all around the world to this end? Nicely packaged, nicely labeled product. That’s a journey, and it’s not always a lovely journey to see. So that’s the education part on the consumers point. And it’s also understanding the context in which companies are operating. I remember Kevin Casey from Banyan Botanicals in a webinar said there’s pesticide residue. Non-point contamination is a huge issue in the world that impacts herbs. It impacts our food. It’s pesticide drift onto organic forms. And he said it’s not the farmers fault if there’s pesticide drift on those products. It’s how we’ve set up the world. It’s that there’s so much pesticides that it’s drifting. So it’s also an awareness that these companies are operating within this capitalist structure that has certain benefits, but it also has certain impacts. And so it’s figuring out within this complex world what we can do, what the companies can do. So many people talk about the importance of relationships in sourcing herbs, relationships with the farmers, with the wild harvesters, with the primary processing companies that buy from them. It’s also, I think, our relationships with the companies themselves, like what I was saying before, how can we shift from just being a consumer, demanding something from them to being an ally or a we’re all working toward this vision.

Ann Armbrecht: How can I as a customer, support you to do that? So relationships is one thing I think about. So getting within the idea of transparency, how is a company maintaining those relationships? Another thing so I started with this question of can intention what’s it look like in a global supply chain? What I came to think well, first I was pretty naive question. But secondly, I thought, well, it’s a little it’s like attention. What allows people to pay attention at each step of the way. That’s what’s going to lead to better quality products. And that means that the soils are being taken care of, that things are being cared for. What allows people to pay attention enough to take care? And I think what follows from that is what are the conditions that are needed for people to pay attention. And then that’s like what we all need, what I need to pay better attention to my work. It’s that I feel like I’m being respected and recognized. My voice is being heard, that I’m being paid a fair pay. How does that look? All the way down the supply network from the source to the finished product?

Bethany Jolley: I think it’s always great to hear some actual examples. So could you share with us any notable success stories or challenges that the Sustainable Herbs Program has encountered in its mission to promote sustainability and ethical sourcing and transparency, and really just reflect on the program’s influence on industry practices and consumer awareness?

Ann Armbrecht: Yeah, so there are things I can note, like the numbers and the webinars and things like that, but what interests me more are some of the shifts in the conversations that were having among the core group of really active participants, mostly in the learning journey, but in the whole learning lab and for example, in the learning lab, we did this mapping, and you map the current system and then are led through a series of questions and then change the system to map. So it’s more in support of your values and vision. And what Aaron Smith from Banyan Botanicals said in the first map, she really wanted plants to be at the center, but she realized they weren’t at the center. And so at the second one, she shifted it so that they were at the center. And so her saying that has led to the Learning lab. The conversations we have are, how can we put the plants at the center in all of our conversations? And then how does that change our actions? And so we begin with a plant journey. And then we do case studies around particular plants and the challenges. And I have to think that is having a change in how each of us goes about our work.

Ann Armbrecht: And it’s hard to measure change, but it’s a shift in thinking, shifting our values from an extractive relationship with those plants to really one of a relationship that’s give and take. And so then how does that play out in day-to-day actions? That’s what we’re exploring now in these different working groups. Another like small individual shift to me, felt so important was there was a member of a producer group overseas, an international group, who said he first joined these working groups and Sustainable Herbs program programs because he really wanted to learn about the market so he could sell his products. And just last week, he said now he realizes that the value for him is to share their story and what they need to those companies, which to me feels like this really crucial shift that’s essential from the brands dictating the terms to really. Being more listening to what their suppliers need and a give and take between them. So those are like these two little seedlings that we’re trying to cultivate until they grow. So they grow. And I think your.

Bethany Jolley: Whole mission is to impact the future. So I want to move into what do you envision for the future of the botanical industry in terms of sustainability and ethical sourcing and transparency, and how do you plan to further expand the impact of the Sustainable Herbs program?

Ann Armbrecht: So right now, maybe the last ten years, it’s a critical point where a number of people in the so-called herbal renaissance in the 70s are retiring. And those people really the companies, the leading herbal products companies that were started by herbalists who wanted to change the world have either left or are in the process of leaving those companies. And so what happens to those companies is really a question will they just be sold to some other impact, some buyer? Will they be more and more people from outside the herb world are coming to work in those companies? How will the plants and the people caring for the plants be cared for? So a few weeks ago, I did a webinar with two people who were critical in the passing of hands at Herb Farm, which was one of those key in the US legacy brands, to talk about what they have done, to really make sure that the integrity stays in the company as it changes and grows. That’s one thing I want to do is continue that conversation. And so in January, I’m having a webinar with the current CEO of a French company that I think it’s been there for 100 years, that has an incredible investment in social and environmental and economic concerns of their sourcing communities. Again, to show share more stories about leading companies with values, what that means, what it takes.

Ann Armbrecht: I’m in to start next year for a Sustainable Herbs program. Supporters have a series of skill sessions just with some of those people who have been instrumental in implementing these values into the herb industry, who are also getting ready to retire, to pass that knowledge on around things like sourcing, developing relationships with suppliers and things like that. So transmission of knowledge is a key thing I’m thinking of. And then the other is building and expanding the community. That’s part of this learning lab where we’re really incubating, trying to learn from and implement practices that arise from caring for the plants and the planet. And on December 7th, and we have a webinar where we’re sharing some of that with the general public. And then in January, Juilliard’s and I are going to start another a new round of the learning lab that new companies, new participants can join. So we’ll share information about that in December 7th. And then next year we’re going to have two learning journeys because they were so powerful for really deepening the relationships among the participants. And so we’ll have one in Oregon. And then for those who participated in Appalachia, another one in Nicaragua in November. So those are the some of the things on my immediate horizon, all.

Bethany Jolley: Exciting projects coming up. So I can tell you’re very passionate about what you do. You have this entrepreneurial spirit. And as the director of the Sustainable Herbs program, what advice do you have for companies and consumers that are really looking to contribute to the movement for sustainable herb products, and how can they actively participate in fostering the greater social equity, community resilience and biodiversity through the choices and actions that they make? I think of two things.

Ann Armbrecht: One is something Joseph Brinkman told me that he tells. He says when people ask, what can I do? He says, pick a plant. Pick one plant. If you’re working for a company that you source, that your company profits from, that your salary comes from, dig in and find out where it’s from, what the challenges are, and begin to take a step toward addressing those challenges. But if it’s not a plant, it’s one like I think connect. So much of the disease we face is from our disconnection from each other, from the planet. And ultimately, I think not everyone. But that is the draw of herbal medicine. It connects us with the earth. And so how can find ways to connect with your suppliers? One supplier, if you’re working in a company or just connect across the silo in which you work and listen, um, that was a key thing on the learning journey. Everybody in that group has done tons of supplier visits. We weren’t there to do a supplier visit. We weren’t there to tell people what to do. We were there to listen, and we did. Everybody listened. Another thing that emerged from that, someone talked about scavengers, and that became a theme like the difference between a scavenger and which seems like this extractive get everything you can to replenishing relationship. So how at every level of the supply chain. What? Can you plant? Not just what can you get, but what seeds can you plant? There’s so much talk about regenerative, which is overused word, but the idea is how can we nourish? How can we give back? How can we feed the system and not just be fed?

Bethany Jolley: I think that’s great advice. And I like what you said about staying connected, because I often feel like we are very disconnected these days with one another, with the planet, with what we’re purchasing and where it’s sourced from. So I think that’s really great advice is to just stay connected. And as we wrap up this enlightening conversation, we extend our gratitude to Ann for sharing her profound insights and dedication to promoting sustainability and transparency in the botanical industry through the Sustainable Herbs Program. For more information on the programs, initiatives and educational resources, we encourage you to explore the provided links. Don’t forget to subscribe, share your thoughts, and join us in celebrating the ever-evolving world of nutraceutical innovations on social media. Until our next episode. Stay informed, well-nourished, and inspired. Thanks for tuning in to this episode of NutraPreneur. If you enjoy the show, please subscribe. And better yet, leave us a review as it really helps us grow the show.