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Nature Your Inspiration for a New Product? Wait a Minute …

Calendula extract, photo courtesy of Weleda

The rise of natural health products and cosmetics has set off a flurry of research and development to discover the next great breakthrough for skin care or for specialized foods that provide an energy boost when you need it most. From shampoos and natural medicines to herbal teas and healthy spreadable fats, Earth’s biodiversity is providing the inspiration for a growing number of consumer goods. What began as luxury products for high-end shoppers have now gone more mainstream, as ingredient-savvy consumers look to natural alternatives in our chemically saturated stores.

In these product areas, people might make assumptions that because a product derives more directly from nature, it is by virtue ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable.’ But this is not always the case. Companies that are scouring the world in search of the latest life-enhancing remedy need to be conscious of the rights of local communities and indigenous peoples whose knowledge and claims to biodiversity far pre-date modern consumerism, much less the arrival of a pharmaceutical company in their communities.

So it goes without saying that companies bear a good deal of responsibility when making use of biodiversity to innovate new products. Without a clear understanding of the rights of local people, they risk violating national and international laws and committing what has been termed ‘biopiracy,’ which is of course morally problematic but also a real threat to business.

One of the earliest and most well-known cases of biopiracy was when scientists discovered breakthrough cancer-fighting compounds in the rosy periwinkle on the island nation of Madagascar in the 1950s, and yet failed to share the benefits with the traditional knowledge keepers. The lengthy dispute has still failed to result in any royalties paid to the local Malagasy people. 

However, working on biodiversity innovation, if handled well, can yield benefits for companies, local communities, and for the very important ecosystems these materials come from.

In Romania, for example, leading pharmaceutical and cosmetics company Weleda has worked with local farmers to ethically harvest wild arnica flowers from the Carpathian Mountains, used to treat aching muscles. Through the sustainable cultivation of arnica oil, farmers are assured a stable income where there were few livelihood opportunities before.  

Brazilian cosmetics company Natura has created sustainable markets for the fruits, seeds and oils of the Amazon, working with over 30 communities on knowledge. One example is their work with the endangered ucuuba tree. Inhabitants of Amazonian riverside communities use the ucuuba to make medicinal teas and candles, and to treat skin conditions. The use of the ucuuba seeds is the most recent result of research, development and dialogue among Natura and communities. The butter from its seeds is now being used in Natura’s Ekos Ucuuba line of body and hair products. The demand for the renewable products of the forest has created an important business case to leave old-growth forests standing rather than logging them, and communities working with Natura are now receiving three times the income for a standing ucuuba tree than one they cut down for the timber industry.

Another example of ethical corporate behavior is from Symrise, the first company to have a fully integrated vanilla supply chain. It works in Madagascar with over 7,000 farmers who walk miles to their vanilla orchid farms to hand-pollinate plants that open only once per year. The bean-to-extract fermentation process for the company’s high-end perfumes and flavorings creates jobs and delivers benefits for 40,000 people.

In the world of using and innovating genetic resources, the collective obligations to local groups are referred to as ‘access and benefit sharing.’ As the name suggests, a company cannot simply ‘discover’ a piece of biodiversity, patent or modify it, and reap all the rewards from its sale.

While many insiders in the procurement world will have heard of the international agreement known as the Nagoya Protocol adopted in 2010 that guides access and benefit sharing, few actually understand how it works. And this is not necessarily their fault.

While the protocol is an integral piece of the puzzle for ensuring the sustainable use of biodiversity, from the outside it can seem confusing and overly bureaucratic. One of the problems is that this an emergent area in which the rules are still evolving. But a bigger issue is that the rules themselves are often drawn up by lawyers who lack scientific or business backgrounds. This can lead to some impracticalities in how requirements for access and benefit sharing can be translated on the ground.  

So, even for the most well-intentioned company, behaving ethically can be troublesome.

But this cloudiness should not be an excuse for inaction or recklessness.

What we are seeing are too many companies being discouraged by the complexity that they are afraid to even take small steps. True, there might not always be strict national laws to penalize them, but companies risk falling out of line with international norms. When we think about the scandals that have hit Apple over its factory conditions or junk food companies over their links to non-traceable palm oil, it is not legal non-compliance that has rocked consumer confidence — it is behavior that falls short of what consumers expect in the 21st century. These same scandals can happen in the natural products world, where these principles and rules are only just emerging, and being understood and organized.

But it is important that companies also realize there are resources out there to assist them. The Union for Ethical BioTrade (UEBT) is a non-profit association that provides companies with tools to put ethical sourcing of natural ingredients into practice. It is better that companies head into this space with open eyes rather than blind faith that access and benefit sharing can be figured out later — or not at all. To the contrary, it must now be part of the DNA of companies who are using and innovating biodiversity.

A good place to start for companies is to prioritize even a few supply chains that they know are higher risk and taking steps to improve them. UEBT provides free resources on access and benefit sharing and holds regular events where companies come together to share good practice. Doing research on a few priority sourcing countries and attending UN events associated with the Nagoya Protocol, such as the UN Biodiversity Conference coming up in November in Egypt, are also good ways to start absorbing information.

As our world gets smaller and it becomes easier to share information from farm to fork — or rainforest to remedy in this case – access and benefit sharing are part of doing business. For those of us working in the cosmetics, natural food and pharmaceutical sectors, we should care about this not only because it gives us social license for commercial activity, but also because the health of ecosystems and the people who have used biodiversity for millennia depend on it.

After all, if we want to continue prospering from nature’s gifts, there is a responsibility to care for the people and places from which these gifts originate.


Maria Julia Oliva is Deputy Director of the Union of Ethical Biotrade, where she has worked since 2009. She is a trained lawyer and a global expert on access and benefit sharing (ABS) of genetic resources.  She provides training and… [Read more about Julia Oliva]


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