Part 1: How The Herbal Industry Can Start to Address Climate Change & Sustainability


In this episode, Wilson speaks to Dr. Holly Johnson, the Chief Science Officer of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA).  Last season, Holly and Wilson discussed the importance of AHPA’s Tonnage Study. They are back to discuss the conversations that happened around sustainability at AHPA’s 10th Botanical Congress. In this episode: 

  • 0:52:  Climate Change is Real – And It’s Affecting Your Herbal Supply Chain
  • 2:10: How Gen Z and Younger Generations are Combating Climate Change
  • 3:43:  The Future - It’s Here Now
  • 4:20:  How to Conduct an Environmental Audit of Your Organization
  • 5:48:  Looking at Sustainability Through Socioeconomic Lens
  • 9:26:  Energy Consumption, Emissions and Examples
  • 11:42:  Going Beyond Good Intentions - Finding the Right Partners 
  • 14:14:  Question: How Do We Really Measure Our Impact? 
  • 16:06:  From Growth to Cultivations- The Many Factors that Affect Sustainability

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Hi, I would like to welcome Holly Johnson, the chief science officer of the American Herbal Products Association, back to Herbal Explorations. Last time you were here, you discussed AHPA's tonnage survey, which users found extremely informative. This time we have the pleasure to discuss sustainability, in particular, AHPA's Botanical Congress, whose focus was on sustainability.


Holly Johnson:

Thanks so much for inviting me, Wilson. It's always a pleasure to hop into your studio and chat about botany, especially sustainability. We had a really excellent Botanical Congress.

It was probably my favorite one because it informs so much of the work that I do every day; the session on some case studies on actual crops, and some of our favorite herbal medicines, that have already been affected by climate change.

We had three excellent speakers come from AHPA member companies, and give some different examples of specific crops in the United States and globally that have been affected by climate change.



That session was one of my favorites as well. Bill did a great job moderating that session, it was called Climate Change is Real, and case studies on it.  What are some of the highlights and main takeaways that you had from this year?


Holly Johnson:

One of the coolest sessions was where we featured youth, youth climate activists, or just different young people that had been involved in fighting climate change and doing things in their communities. And so that was a highlight and it was cool to see some young voices.  It's our kids and our grandkids that are going to be the most affected by this as time goes on. Not only with access to herbal medicines but in general, what types of plants will be able to grow in certain places.

I feel like that was definitely one of the highlights of the day for me.  Hearing from the youth and what they think about these issues in these ever-emerging concerns around climate.



I like to see the energy and enthusiasm that youth brings, and it's great to see how engaged they are in their communities and the issues that they thought were important; it was just a beacon of hope.


Holly Johnson:

Wilson, that is how we tried to end the whole day of the Botanical Congress. I think at the very end there was this emergence of, what can we do going forward? Not only what are some of the youth activists doing, but what are people in our own community, companies, and industry doing?

I'm glad you got that too; that feeling of hope because I think that's what we're all rallying around now, that there is work to be done and hope for the future.



I'm a parent of two very young children. I ask myself, "What are they going to have to deal with?" How is the world going to look different than what we grew up in?  That's why we chose to focus season two of Herbal Explorations just around the topic of sustainability. So we do a real deep dive into some of these topics that should matter to us, whether we're in the industry or not, and particularly how sustainability issues impact our industry beyond the plants themselves.

What was a main personal takeaway around sustainability? Is there anything that said, “I could do this at my micro level, versus at a company level or macro level?” Was there something that said, “I could adapt this myself or in my life?”


Holly Johnson:

That's a cool question, Wilson. We think about what we can do in our professional lives all the time. And I know probably you, like many of us, have been recycling since we were little kids and those types of things in our everyday life.

AHPA has always been focused on the sustainability of plant populations and conserving the wild plants that we collect and rely on. But more recently, also focused on the other pillars of sustainability in terms of economic and social concerns.

What I see emerging now is that even five years ago, it seemed like sustainability was an extra thing that product companies could do. Many APHA member companies have had this as a part of their mission statement, some of them since the seventies.  Many of them were starting to onboard these ideas and themes in their companies because they were more of a marketing thing; they realized that consumers will pay more for this.

I feel like it has come around to be not just something so that corporate leadership can sleep well in their bed at night, knowing consciously that they've done the right thing. But also, it's being demanded more in terms of all the stakeholders, boards of trustees, shareholders, as well as consumers. Increasingly, sustainability issues are coming down in regulations in terms of packaging.

Companies are realizing that sustainability is not just something we need to do a report on, but integral to the success of our business going forward, not just the herbal industry. 

I feel like that consciousness is really what struck me personally; that many CEOs and leaders in our business are starting to think seriously about sustainability issues in terms of survival.  Not just having nice marketing things but in terms of ROI and bottom line and being able to succeed and go forward as a corporation into the future. 


It's not about the fancy reports and the glossy marketing that we’ve seen throughout the industry, but it's one of those things that says,  “What are you actually doing and what is the ROI?” I think for some of the things that we do, we may not have a good way to measure them as of today. So we just went fully solar at our warehouse, Nuherbs.


Holly Johnson:




Thanks. One of the things you look at through that process is energy consumption. Why is energy one of the first things most companies tackle? Well, because it's measurable. The ROI is known. We all have, whether, at our homes or businesses, we have these meters that tell us how much energy we use. Therefore, we also see how much energy we saved or didn't use from the grid.

A lot of the things are measurable because there's a complex ecosystem around it and because of that ecosystem, some things are easier to do than others. When you start talking about your carbon footprint out in the wild and the world, things are not as easy and metered and neat.

I was just thinking about this the other day, as we're thinking about Scope 1, Scope 2, and Scope 3 emissions, and the hurricane that hit Florida. It makes you think, what happens if a company goes on a generator for a week? Using a gas power generator for a week while they're getting back up to their regular power sources, let's say solar for example. Well, then your Scope 1 emissions, which is your upstream emissions, will look different that year for that vendor.

And are you able to capture that in any way? How does that change your calculation now? A lot of this will become more measurable as more tools are brought online. I think it still will be a messy world, but we've got to do the things that we think are important and will make an impact, whether they're measurable or not.


Holly Johnson:

I think you're exactly right, Wilson. And that's what a lot of the companies in the supplements industry right now are grappling with is, what do we do that's going to be worth it; that's going to change things? But also, how do we measure that and track that throughout the years?  Whether you're focused on manufacturing energy in a plant, or something out in the wild, what impact do you have on the ecosystem?

We had some people come to the American Botanical Congress who told us about projects they have going on. You hear about these tree-planting activities. It turns out I use a cosmetic product that has one of these and I didn't pay too much attention to it before I started thinking about this issue. It says, for every dollar you spend with us, one tree is planted.  And I'm like, wow, I spent a hundred bucks on cosmetics, that's a lot of trees. But then you start digging deeper, and what does that mean? There are some planting organizations that are doing excellent work and some whose efforts may not be as beneficial in the long run.

So a company can claim these many trees were planted, but if you just take a tiny little seedling, put it out there, and you plant it, it probably got eaten that night. Does that actually turn into a tree? You can evaluate these different projects to try to make sure you're partnering with people that are doing good work. I think many organizations are very well-intentioned, but again, this is part of our job too, trying to figure out how to invest in it to get to these goals.

What does carbon neutral mean? What are these carbon credits and how do you calculate that? So this is also going to be an issue facing us going forward. What type of metrics do we use? And are these metrics valuable and holding?



I was reading about this great ability to take this drone to do this seed drop for trees and that could be counted as planting. For our sister brand, NuTraditions, we plant a tree; a sapling, and the tree has to grow. But it's not a sapling; the tree is big already, and it's going to take root.  

We're growing it aside from our ginseng, so, we know by the time we dig out the ginseng, that tree is rooted. There are all sorts of definitions for it, and what is the real impact of it? It's like, these studies... And it makes me giggle, but then I almost pull my hair out in frustration, because they're so specific to that microclimate and that location.

If you do a study in Brazil about the carbon you're taking out, is that the same mathematics going to work for someplace in Northern China? Or, in Eastern Europe?  I'm not a scientist, but I have my suspicions.


Holly Johnson:

Or the Pacific Northwest of the United States? That's going to continue to be an issue too, Wilson. We've heard some of those case studies where crops that had been grown in a certain area for the past decades; are now being affected by hotter temperatures, more rainfall, and less rainfall. How do you adjust for that and have a plan going forward so that you have plants growing in areas where they didn't use to grow?

Whether it's stuff that we've cultivated for decades on end or things that we may be bringing from the wild into cultivation, everything about a geographic region where something used to grow can affect the chemical profiles.

I mean there's so much there, Wilson, and I'm a scientist, but not this type. There is just so much that goes into it from endophytic fungi to soil organisms, to soil conditions like pH, to other things growing, including animals. Predation can affect the production of secondary metabolites. There's just so much to consider about not just cultivating the plants, but getting the quality of material that you want.



Thank you so much for joining me, Holly.


Holly Johnson:

It's my pleasure, Wilson.