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The Three Pillars of Smart Sustainability

By: Jeb Gleason-Allured, Editor
Posted: February 27, 2009

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“Treat the soil right and make sure you can get the right quality [crops],” he said. “We should exchange distillation and extraction technology to get the most out of the land and use new methods of chemistry so that … we get the most out of the biomass.”

Sociological Ethics

The societal impact of the naturals trade is something overlooked by many, noted Brinkgreve. Yet he views it as a key pillar of sustainability. Unstable societies will invariably net unstable supply streams. “Most of our suppliers, especially in the southern hemisphere, are living below the poverty line,” he explained. “The average lifespan of our suppliers is below 45 years.” The main threats, he said, include malaria, limited access to clean drinking water and critical nutrition, and insufficient financial means to purchase medicines. In addition, there is little education, and the labor-intensive nature of disadvantaged farming means that children may be exploited for production. “It’s shocking to see,” said Brinkgreve. “Our products are used for luxury.”

He outlined some efforts with which he had firsthand knowledge, including partnering with NGOs such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, providing microfinancing to women in Ugandan vanilla farming communities, ISO certifying another Ugandan farm, helping local communities diversify crop and livestock production to more easily weather bad times, and enacting a technology exchange program to boost yield and quality per hectare.

Ethical Optimization of Value Chains

The final pillar of Brinkgreve’s sustainability outlook is one which no industry can exist without: economics. To illustrate, he displayed the value chain for patchouli, which involves some 60,000 farmers, most of whom are buried beneath many layers of traders and other middlemen.

“I’ll never forget a meeting I had about a year ago with one of the biggest patchouli traders in the world. He had two Rolexes and a diamond ring the size of a golf ball. He said to me, ‘You really have to pay me this price because these farmers are so poor—they need to have more money.’ They make the money off the backs of the poor farmers.”