From the Editor's Desk

Should ‘sustainability’ include local wages and working conditions?

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

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Getty Images
Sustainability can mean a lot of things. When it applies to working conditions, how far should the concept go?

As the national political debate swirls around whether democratic socialism is a harbinger of doom or a viable political theory, the question also turns to notion of sustainability in the dietary supplement industry.  Should this include the working conditions of the workers down the street, as well those in the developing parts of the world?

When discussing conditions within the supply chain, the terms ‘sustainability’ or ‘corporate responsibility’ have often been applied to the conditions of workers in the areas where the raw materials for dietary ingredients are grown or gathered.  A number of companies are rightly proud of the work they have done to raise the standard of living among these groups.

Wages in the supply chain

Botanical ingredient consultant Chris Kilham, who also goes by the moniker of the Medicine Hunter, has often stressed the hard manual labor associated with the gathering of botanical ingredients in the some of the areas of South America and Asia where he does supply development work. 

A worker in this part of the supply chain might make just a tiny fraction of what his or her North American counterpart would earn, so these wages are a vanishing fraction of the final cost of the finished good. It’s easier, then, to increase these wages; a bit more here, which would hardly be noticed in the final tally of costs, can go a long way toward making for a better life for these workers.

So, this is an easy sell.  Everybody likes to see pictures of kids in the developing world given the chance to go to well supplied schools and get adequate health care.

But how about when it comes to domestic workers?  Big corporations like Walmart have been accused of paying so little that in some markets its workers have had to resort to food banks or other forms of public assistance to make ends meet.

Questions about working conditions are also in the news recently because of the plan for a strike among some Amazon workers during the company’s upcoming Prime Day sales event.  The workers contend that the normal rapid pace of warehouse work gets ramped up to unsupportable levels during the shipping frenzy. While Amazon ships everything under the sun, it has become a major seller of dietary supplements as well. (While not disputing the work pace issue per se, Amazon counters that its warehouse workers are, relatively speaking, fairly well paid.)

Issue becomes clouded closer to home

It seems easier to figure these questions out at one remove. You click the ‘donate’ button to help build a school or a medical clinic in Ethiopia. You probably have no idea about the local political history, and who might be to blame for why things are the way they are there.  You just know there are people in need.

But what about when the school 10 miles from our own homes is failing? The latter can get bound up with questions of personal responsibility.  Have opportunities been squandered? Has local political corruption complicated the issue? Should we raise the shibboleths of ‘overpaid teachers’ and ‘recalcitrant unions?’

Closer to home there are companies and institutions active in the dietary supplement and natural products fields that support local workers.  Natural Grocers, with its certified grass fed dairy standards and its stance on the country of origin question in the meat trade, has tried to support family farmers in North America. And the Regenerative Organic Agriculture standard developed by the Rodale Institute, a standard that goes beyond the garden-variety organic certifications, includes working conditions and wages of farm workers as one of the standard’s three ‘pillars.’

Many supplement companies run on small margins, which would naturally put a squeeze on workers pay and benefits. Yet some of the older, more established companies seem to have created a family type atmosphere, and can point with pride to workers who have spent decades with their companies.

Sustainability as a differentiator

In my view best practice on sustainability would point to these accomplishments.  How many times have you seen ‘sustainably sourced’ used on a website, with almost nothing to back it up? 

How about touting these accomplishments (assuming a company has them) with real world examples of how a given supplement company’s operations make a difference in the communities in which they operate? Examples might include: 83% of our workers own their own homes, 75% of the children of our workers have attended college, etc. 

Sustainability, or corporate responsibility, pitched in this way could provide a differentiation factor for companies, it seems to me.  A small but increasing amount of supplement sales are going to ephemeral online brands that have none of these connections, and are competing solely on price and the ease of transaction.  Once the growth curve for a given category of supplements starts to flatten out, they’re on to something else.

A company with the sort of sustainability bona fides I’m alluding to could say in contrast: This is a real product with real benefits, not just for the end user but also for the communities in which it is manufactured. We have a history of helping our local community, and your purchase will help that mission to continue.

Which side of that coin would you rather be on?

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