Recently while I was shopping on Amazon for a sustainable source of coffee to satisfy my morning buzz, I came across a coffee shop that was selling unique coffee grown in the Cerrado region of South America. After all I learned of the Cerrado through my XMNR courses, the largest and most ancient grassland savanna that mankind has a privilege to experience, it was upsetting to see someone describing it as “native” because I knew the region needed tremendous industrial transformation of its acidic soil in order to be suitable for growing any products at all. When I asked the seller if it was sustainable, he answered “I would think so, coffee is native to Brazil!!”

Across the web and the grocery aisle, terms like sustainable, natural, and organic have been reduced to marketing phrases. The promulgation of a myriad of labels and standards, together with a lack of transparency on what actually makes a product sustainable, has made it nearly impossible to shop for ethically sourced consumer goods without a masters in sustainability! This is not something we should expect from the average consumer.

Can we seriously know the veracity, sourcing, standards and impacts of every one of these labels?


A similar situation existed with medicines in the 1800s. Charlatans of all types sold medicines with wild claims and even those destined for doctors offices could not be assured that what was in them was the actual pharmaceutical. On top of that, a variety of regulations from different states within the US created a dizzying set of standards that essentially made companies selling in multiple states have to create a different type of product for each market, even if it was the same thing they were selling! The situation was dangerous to the public, bad for business, and stymied the progress of medical science. It was not until a coalition of a crusading chemist, women’s activists clubs, and multi-state businesses came together to push the federal government into creating the FDA that the safe foods and effective medications we come to rely upon today were standardized. It was an early example of a cross-sectorial collaboration between the public, business, academia and government – Collective Impact if you will.

A cartoon showing an elephant with a label, Hamlin's Wizard Oil,

Best Pain Remedy on Earth – Yup, sure.

Fast forward to 2013, and we have the multiple sets of organic, rainforest friendly, energy efficient and green labels that confronts and confuse us when we try to make ethically based purchases. It would seem obvious that what we need is an “eFDA”, or at least a set of agreed upon standards that can simply guide us when making purchasing decisions. We need a Nutrition Facts label for sustainability. And just as the Nutrition Facts uses agreed upon scientific standards to show us what is in our food, we need similar standards to show us where our products come from, as well as the environmental, social and economic impacts created in the process of production. Think of how much water to produce a can of beans, or how much energy to manufacture a laptop, or how many trees to create the toilet paper.

Mark Bittman recently wrote in the NYT about his dream food label which would encompass nutrition, “foodness” and welfare in a simplified, standardized label:


simple and to the point

The most difficult part, and the one with the most opportunity for sustainability professionals is that of “welfare”, which he writes would encompass the following:

“The third is the broadest (and trickiest); we’re calling it “Welfare.” This would include the treatment of workers, animals and the earth. Are workers treated like animals? Are animals produced like widgets? Is environmental damage significant? If the answer to those three questions is “yes” — as it might be, for example, with industrially produced chickens — then the score would be zero, or close to it. If the labor force is treated fairly and animals well, and waste is insignificant or recycled, the score would be higher.”

As Bittman notes, his proposal is not an end but a beginning of the conversation about how to create sustainability food labels. And for sustainability professionals, the subject of unified, simple and effective labeling is one that will require a Collective Impact approach. There is too much competition for grants and market position among for and non-profits alike in the green label field, for the sake of the planet we need to begin to come together around a label we can all agree upon, and read!

Cargill Expands “Responsible Soy” Project To Protect Rainforest

When The Nature Conservancy (TNC) approached Cargill to reduce the impact of Soy farming on deforestation in Brazil, their intent was pure: we need to stop this habitat destruction. Bolstered by Greenpeace’s successful campaign to convince McDonald’s to pressure their beef suppliers, namely Cargill, to reduce the impacts of their cattle feed on deforestion, TNC approached an economically pressured Cargill about how to manage the supply chain of their Brazilian soy production in a way that could reduce the negative impacts to biodiversity in the region.

This well intended partnership, which gave birth to the Responsible Soy program , appeared to be a win-win: Cargill uses its weight in the region to reduce deforestation by buying soy from land that was previously cleared, such as cattle ranches, rather than farms on newly deforested land. And TNC can build on the partnership to expand and partner with other companies, all the while having a positive impact on the Cerrado and Amazon.

But the economics of Soy, driven in large part by a Chinese market demand that values price stability over sustainability, resulted in unintended consquences, as detailed by researchers from McGill:

Soybean cultivation carries the political weight necessary to induce infrastructure improvements, which in turn stimulates crop expansion. Further, Nepstad et al (2006) suggest that growth of the Brazilian soy industry may have indirectly led to the expansion of the cattle herd. According to Nepstad et al (2006), soy has driven up land prices in the Amazon (5–10 fold in many areas of Mato Grosso), allowing many cattle ranchers to sell valuable holdings at enormous capital gains and purchase new land further north and expand their herd further. This hypothesis is consistent with our spatial analysis showing northward displacement of pasture, with declining pasture in parts of Mato Grosso, and increasing pasture further north (figures 1and 4), and also supported by findings from other recent studies (Dros 2004Cattaneo 2008). Our statistical analysis of the relationship between soy/cattle price and deforestation lends further credence to this hypothesis (figure 6). It shows that while the relationship between cattle price and deforestation has been more or less stable, soy has become increasingly related to deforestation over time. In summary, even if the proximate cause of deforestation was mainly ranching, it is likely that soy cultivation is a major underlying cause (

The lesson is not to get together for a partnership between large corporations and non-profits, if anything the relationship between Cargill and TNC has likely increased environmental awareness within Cargill, a key cultural shift essential to moving us towards a more sustainable planet. The problem lies in creating these partnerships without a consideration of how a change in a major economic player will impact the other parts of the local economy. The economy works much like an ecosystem, you can’t impact one section without changing many others.

Future projects would be wise to consider the downstream envrio-economic impacts that could result from a change in policy among a corporate behemoth in developing economies, and the lessons learned in the Cerrado could then be used to model future plans elsewhere.

Organic. Farm Fresh. Locally grown. These are the hot topics of sustainability. We think about these issues when it comes to our food and our health – but what about our medicines?

Global supply chains produce the cures that sustain us, with multinational pharmaceutical companies drawing on a vast web of manufacturers, raw suppliers, and compounding facilities across the globe. Safety and verification has been the name of the game for those involved in manufacturing drugs, ensuring that what we put in our bodies are the actual pharmacologically active ingredients, following (for the most part) Good Manufacturing Practices. After the infamous Heparin supply incident, where Chinese manufacturers substituted a cheaper alternative to the active ingredient in the ubiquitous blood thinner leading to multiple deaths across the world, the pharmaceutical giants have been especially attentive to guaranteeing that the correct drug is in the pill. When Auret van Heerden discussed the controversy, he traced the supply chain down to the pig farmers in China that provide the raw heparin material from porcine intestines.

Making heparin from pig intestines

When I learned about the ultimate source of the blood thinner millions of patients use every day, I immediately thought – how sustainable are the pig farmers? If this were food, there would certainly be organic alternatives, rainforest friendly heparin, or even bird-friendly blood thinners. Yet the issues of environmental impacts of the Pharmaceutical supply chain remains largely under addressed. Pioneering programs such as Business for Social Responsibility’s Pharmaceutical Supply Chain Initiative seek to address these shortcomings, however hard data and awareness of the Carbon Footprint or conservation impacts of our medicines remains scarce. Does your monthly supply of Lipitor require more energy to manufacture than to power your home?  What do you think?

In the next post, I’ll dive deeper into a single drug case study and illuminate more on just how deep the rabbit hole goes…and why the pharmaceutical industry has so much to gain by addressing these issues.