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Sweetening the Deal: The Impact of Responsibly Sourced Licorice

When most people think of licorice, the twisted and spiraled black confections from penny candy stores come to mind. Given that glycyrrhizin, licorice’s major constituent, is one of nature’s sweetest substances—50 times sweeter than sugar—it is no surprise how this plant became synonymous with its candy form. Licorice root is one of the most widely used medicinal plants, praised in Traditional Chinese Medicine and in Ayurveda for over 5,000 years to soothe digestion and minor throat irritations. In fact, today’s formulations remain largely unchanged since ancient times. While common enough throughout herbal medicine’s history, most people are still unaware of the social, economic, and environmental challenges faced by the many rural people whose incomes rely on wild collection.

Why Responsibly Sourced, Wild-Collected Licorice Matters

Licorice serves as a key ingredient in many of our herbal formulas, especially our Throat Coat® tea, and as a supportive ingredient of our Smooth Move® teas and capsules. To find the quality we require for our products, we source wild-collected licorice rather than farmed. That’s because the terroir of the wild-collected licorice we find in countries like Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia produces a far superior pharmacopoeial-grade root than any we’ve tested from farms… but this is not to say that all wild-collected licorice is created equal.

According to the FairWild Foundation, the majority of nature’s 60,000 medicinal plant species are collected in the wild by local, rural and indigenous peoples who rely on wild collecting as their primary source of income—unfortunately, many of whom are exploited for cheap labor. In the country of Georgia, for example, high unemployment causes families to cross the border into Turkey for seasonal agricultural work, where their civil rights and personal dignities are often compromised as foreign, migrant workers. By sourcing from a new Georgian wild-collected licorice supplier, Traditional Medicinals (TM) has been able to help collectors remain in Georgia and cultivate a more reliable economic climate at home. By participating in the FairWild® certification and trading system, we voluntarily pay above market prices and contribute to a social premium fund, which helps create economic stability with fair compensation and regular jobs in the licorice collection areas. In the long-term, we are able to help preserve the culture of the local people, provide opportunities for future generations, and secure our access to some of the finest quality plants on the planet for years to come. Josef Brinckmann, Traditional Medicinals’ VP of Sustainability, asserts, “Everyone has a role to play in preserving biological diversity. One way of doing that is by equitably supporting the local people to serve as stewards of the land.”

“Everyone has a role to play in preserving biological diversity. ” -Josef Brinckmann, VP of Sustainability at Traditional Medicinals

Doing Our Part for Licorice and its Traditional Collectors

Helping communities raise the bar with sustainable collection practices produces many positive results. Our participation in FairWild helps protect the biodiversity of the collection area with sustainable resource management, while supporting the long-term economic viability of our local supplier and improves the quality of life for the workers. Typically, managing sustainable wild licorice populations involves harvesting half of the roots in a given area without returning for six years to allow enough time for regeneration of all species in the ecosystem and for roots to again reach maturity. Responsible collecting in these areas has yielded trusting relationships and organic, fair pharmacopoeial-quality licorice, and it allows us to ethically safeguard the biodiversity of the entire collection area.

In countries like Kazakhstan, licorice grows abundantly in the wild on government-leased collection areas. To access these areas, collectors must travel vast distances on poorly maintained roads and camp in the wilderness during harvest season. Using our contributions to the FairWild Premium Fund, workers voted democratically to secure their camps with housing, clean water, electricity, and healthcare. Above and beyond the premium fund, TM also bought the licorice harvesters a vehicle to transport them to and from the nearest town. In Georgia, workers have opted to add dental insurance to their health care.

While we recognize that deep-seated change takes time, we’re proud of the momentum started by the social, economic and environmental victories associated with our licorice partnerships. Pioneering is a conscientious act of trial and error. While doing business the “right way” costs more, the positive impacts certainly sweeten the deal. In choosing to buy our teas, you, too, can make your contribution. Our work continues with your conscious choice.

Click here if you want to learn about our other sustainability initiatives around the world.

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