Think for a minute about how you interact with your environment: Surely you care about the planet, right? Plant and animal life is important to you—and certainly you strive to reduce your carbon footprint. But what do you do on a daily basis to support these values?
“I think there’s a difference between caring about it and knowing what to do about it,” says Jason Boyce, the sustainability manager for Nature’s Path Foods. “The loss of topsoil, loss of amphibians due to overuse of pesticides, or dead zones in the ocean because too much fertilizer washes down—there are all these giant things that individual actions seem powerless to help and may not touch people on a direct basis. Like, how does this affect my life when I’m also worried about my kid’s school, and paying the bills, and getting to work on time, and the million things everyone’s busy with?”
To help individuals recognize that they are able to make a positive difference in the world, many companies are looking at not only how their business will profit, but also how the planet will fare in the long run. This way, shoppers can see that what they care about aligns with the values of a particular brand and make choices that way so that their purchases have an impact.
Nature’s Path has been committed to that approach for a long time—30 years—but newcomers to the marketplace are increasingly jumping on board. And it’s not just in the realm of food, either.
“The conundrum is that we care a lot about this stuff, but we always feel somewhere between sad and angry that the rest of the world is either trashing the planet or doesn’t care,” says Alex McIntosh, founder and CEO of Thrive Natural Care, which officially launched its first line of shave and skincare products in the spring of 2014 after 18 months of research and development. “But what Thrive is really about is this conscious choice to live healthier and also be part of something that’s a lot more meaningful and fun than trying to be ‘less bad.’ It’s about restoration, it’s about regeneration—both of our skin and of the planet.”
So, what makes companies like Nature’s Path and Thrive stand out? For starters, these guys share the same philosophy: to leave the earth better than they found it. They use organic ingredients and practice farming methods that improve the health of the soil. In addition, they operate within a transparent paradigm, helping shoppers to see exactly how their purchases affect the environment as a whole.
“Supporting these kinds of companies allows them to make a small difference, because we make a big difference,” says Jason. An example of this big difference? Last year, Nature’s Path supported more than 88,000 acres of organic land through their purchase of organic materials. This kept soil and water free from about 14,000 tons of synthetic fertilizers—“which means there’s less runoff, less nitrogen in the water, less dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico,” explains Jason—and prevented the spread of 200 tons of pesticides.
Since its inception in 1985, Nature’s Path has been purchasing from farmers who farm organically—and there are many farmers today who are looking to make the transition from traditionally nonorganic land to organic in hopes of bettering both the land and their crop. Thrive actually seeks out areas in need of soil restoration and chooses to plant there, which is part of the reason Alex chose Costa Rica as the inaugural place for Thrive’s “restorative garden” project. The production of each Thrive ingredient restores an area larger than 1,000 football fields.
His other reasons? The high life expectancy and literacy rate of many Costa Ricans, the country’s choice to demilitarize in the late 1940s and channel that money into education and healthcare, and their government’s goal to be carbon neutral as a nation by 2021. “I actually felt like the people there would not only understand, but actually be able to help us figure out this new business model—and I wanted to do it in a place that had already shown a vision for the future,” Alex adds.
Thrive’s two star ingredients, the Fierrillo vine and Juanilama herb, have been used for centuries by the indigenous and rural people in Costa Rica to repair skin, control inflammation, treat skin abrasions, and address a range of other ailments.
“We intentionally picked these plants not only because they’re really good for healing and protecting skin, but also because they’re really good at restoring the soil,” says Alex. “They fix nitrogen, they attract biodiversity, and so what we’re doing is we’re actually growing the raw ingredients for our products [in such a way] so that the ingredients that we’re growing themselves help regenerate the land.”
Although still a small company by comparison, Thrive’s regenerative garden footprint has already multiplied fivefold in just the past year. As they grow, Alex hopes to expand to thousands of farms around Latin America and the world to help bring that damaged soil back to life while supporting rural farming communities.
“For the farmers, they get more productive land, they can grow more on it, there’s less erosion, the biodiversity comes back (which is really good for the surrounding conservation areas), the farmers can make a better livelihood, and we’re getting a supply of these plants that used to be native to this area but were kind of wiped out,” he says. “And, over time, these lands come back.”
But just how much time must pass before land can be restored?
“Organic standards prohibit the application of ‘prohibited substances’ (e.g., synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) for three years before the land can be certified. Now, that’s not intended to say the land is completely healed by that point; it’s intended to be a practical means. A line has to be drawn somewhere to allow farmers to transition to organic. It’s practical for farmers to spend three years to get certified,” says Dag Falck, the organic program manager for Nature’s Path.
“But to truly create an organically sustainable soil where the weeds are really not a competing issue and your fertility is long term and good every year, it probably takes more like five to eight years.”
While this might seem like a long time to spend on soil, growing on organic land is more than worth it for not only the long-term health of the planet, but also a farmer’s crop yield. For example, at Thrive’s two pilot sites, where the organic composition of the soils has increased nearly 50 percent, the monthly growth rate for its two plant crops has more than doubled.
“What you’ll notice is the organic land is spongey and soft and it’s comfortable to walk on. And then when you walk onto the nonorganic land, you’ll find that it’s like concrete,” says Dag. “And if you actually smell it, you’ll notice that there’s actually an acrid, sour smell in the nonorganic and there’s a sweet, sort of ‘life’ smell—similar to the smell of a compost—in the organic land. So what that tells you is that one has healthy microbiology in the soil—in the organic—and that’s what’s missing in the nonorganic soil.”
On nonorganic farms, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides often consistently penetrate the soil; this makes the soil inhabitable for microorganisms, which are key to maintaining biodiversity.
“And that’s what keeps your soil healthy. If you don’t have microorganisms, you don’t have healthy soil,” states Dag, adding that crop rotation is often a method employed by organic farmers to mimic nature’s natural support of a variety of microorganisms—which contributes to healthy soil all year-round. “There are certain microorganisms that live in wheat fields; there are different microorganisms that live in alfalfa fields; so if you rotate those crops, you’re going to be supporting those organisms, and a fuller balance of microorganisms.”
But, let’s get back to you: How can you not only care about the planet, but also make a tangible effort to protect and restore it? (Hint: Leaving the earth better than you found it goes beyond buying breakfast cereal or choosing a new skincare product; it’s about the broader idea of shifting your behavior and being more mindful as you live out your sustainable values.)
“Maybe they start an urban garden, or maybe they buy a hybrid car,” suggests Jason.
“If nothing else, they’ll bring that idea into their life—of, you know, you’re walking through a park and you see some plastic litter on the ground, and you pick it up and you put it in the recycling bin, so you’re leaving the park better than you found it,” Alex says. “If we can bring that instinct to not only business but to society—leaving things a little bit better off—that’s really beautiful.”
By Erica Tasto