Natural Products EXPO East: Regenerative Possibilities

In the heart of Philadelphia, this past September was the annual Natural Products Expo East. The show included events, education, and a tradeshow floor featuring natural product companies from all over the world. Expo East is produced by New Hope Network, which is “working to cultivate a prosperous high-integrity CPG and retail ecosystem that creates health, joy, and justice for all people while regenerating the planet.” These are lofty and admirable goals that frontline communities and grassroots organizations have been fighting for decades in the environmental justice movement. (For further reading on this, I recommend Dorceta Taylor’s work, Toxic Communities Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility.)

The question dancing in my mind as we waited at the starting line was, can a tradeshow lead to enlightenment, on whatever scale?

New Certifications

At this point, various Organic and Fair-Trade certifications and labeling have permeated the marketplace to the extent that they are fairly ubiquitous. In speaking with folks at Where Food Comes From and the Upcycled Food Association, I learned how certifications are expanding beyond Organic to Upcycled and Regenerative Organic. Upcycled food targets 30% of all food produced globally that goes to waste by repurposing surplus food to create new products.  Regarding climate issues that affect emissions and public health, food waste is a vital problem to tackle.

It was heartening to see that becoming part of the lexicon. Regenerative Organic (ROC™) is a certification not only for food but also, for textiles and personal care that enacts standards relating to soil health, animal welfare, and fair farmworker labor conditions. The Regenerative Organic Alliance includes practices such as cover cropping, crop rotation, low- to no-till, compost, and zero use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

Acknowledging the Roots of Regenerative Ag

While speaking on a panel entitled “Expanding Climate Action Beyond the Sustainability Department,” Sarela Herrada from Simpli reinforced a vital concept to keep in mind when it comes to regenerative agriculture, which is that these “practices are already there for Indigenous communities.” Simpli defines regenerative farming as incorporating methods that rebuild soil organic matter and restore degraded soil biodiversity, practices that bolster carbon drawdown, and reduce water usage. Sarela and her co-founder have built a food company with vertically integrated supply chains to tackle the dual issues of climate change and supporting the livelihood of smallholder farmers. By cutting out the middlemen in the supply chain, Simpli can reinvest profits back into their farmers, helping to finance certifications or providing seeds.

Cross-sectoral Collaboration and Accessing Vulnerability

Yoli Ouiya, Founder of Yoli’s Green Living, hosted the keynote conversation on Friday with Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. Topics ranged from the Inflation Reduction Act and the importance of job training in the just transition away from the fossil fuel economy to how Exxon created the concept of the individual consumer carbon footprint and how we must break the cycle of single-use everything. In response to the host’s question about momentum around the changes we need to make, Dr. Johnson reminded the audience that many of the solutions already exist: “we know how to green buildings, farm regenerative, shift manufacturing and efficiency in supply chains.” She pointed towards policy incentivizing transition and how at this point, it is a matter of speed.

Vulnerability tends to be a term not typically associated with politics or business. However, it may be the key to collaboration that can compound and magnify efforts between nonprofits and the public and private sectors. A thought from Dr. Johnson that gave me pause was that many organizations already exist and that rather than always starting a new one, why not create a local chapter? She spoke about how to replicate the success of others without the ego: instead of, “I found my own way, and it worked best, I tried your way, and it worked great!”

As the world of reporting and disclosure evolves, there can be a tendency for companies to want to highlight wins and report on what has already been accomplished. Dr. Johnson flipped this on its head by encouraging companies to break past the fear of talking about plans. What if we admitted, “it’s going to be hard, we only figured out the first three steps, but we’re sharing the process.” This shifts the narrative towards collective efforts to navigate and find solutions.

Epiphany in the Conference Halls

As to my lingering opening question, perhaps a tradeshow can facilitate meaningful change, particularly when the panels and keynotes are as thoughtfully curated as they were. Somewhere along my serpentine path between Aisles 400 and 4400 and an Escher-like array of escalators and entryways, I re-connected with how to stay motivated with the immense work we have ahead of us: find other folks who are passionate and learn from them, build community, honor wisdom cultivated over millennia, and keep trying.

If your interest has been piqued by any of these topics, I highly recommend All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, an anthology of 60 works by visionary women working in climate, co-edited by Dr. Johnson. For podcast fans, journalist Alex Blumberg rounds up a cadre of “climate nerds” and serves up inspiration on How to Save a Planet.

Fired up to kickstart your organization’s sustainability journey? Check out what we’re building over at the Sensiba Center for Sustainability.