I’m going to be honest with you. There’s an area of herbalism that literally keeps me awake at night. It’s the reason why I’ve resisted opening my own practice; the reason why I’ve been reluctant to market my own products; and the reason why I’ve hesitated before becoming an entrepreneur.
This area of herbalism is ethics – and it’s a real conundrum.
I’ve recently come across a very inspiring herbalist – Rev Father Anselm Adodo – a pioneer of the herbal renaissance currently underway in Nigeria. In one of his talks, Rev Adodo discusses how the evolution of herbalism is stunted by the ways in which certain herbalists behave – such as craving medical endorsements, pursuing short term profits, not speaking the same language as one another, and resisting science as a tool for growth. He observes how “herbal medicine practitioners project themselves more as businessmen and women whose sole aim is to sell their wares rather than as scientists, thinkers, researchers and humanists working for the promotion of the common good.”
Now, let me be clear: I think it’s wonderful to make an abundant living doing what you love. Money is an exchange of energy, and herbalists should be well compensated for their work – there is nothing honorable about struggling to survive. However, I’ve also grappled with this question of ethics for over 10 years. I’ve questioned the integrity of practitioners whose clients are also their customers; the validity of herbal products marketed as panaceas; and the cut-throat competitiveness of corporate herbal businesses. Rev Adodo’s message awakened in me this decade-old frustration – a gnawing feeling that something in the industry just isn’t quite right.
As an industry, I see herbal medicine as being in an oscillating structure. On one hand there are the corporate big businesses where making money overrules ethics and integrity, and where herbs are marketed to generate revenue rather than to educate. On the other hand, there are the poverty-stricken herbalists struggling to survive and either giving away their skills for free, or resorting to pushing products on their clients and using gimmicky diagnostic technologies rather than sound science and skills.
Unlike other healing professions, there is no standard of ethics by which herbalists are governed. It is up to each practitioner, each entrepreneur, to uphold their own integrity and their own ethical practice. And the truth is that many fantastic herbalists struggle as entrepreneurs. Anyone who has owned a business can attest to how difficult it is to generate profit - all that money that’s left over after you pay rent, utilities, employees, bills, taxes, marketing, etc. And since many herbalists struggle to make a profit running an herbal business or practice, the ethical guidelines of practice suddenly become secondary to simply surviving as an herbalist.
I believe that with the right framework – both in our external and internal environments – we can easily become successful herbalists. The right external framework involves choosing a business model that works for you, and there are several innovative business models apart from the competitive for-profit industries that can allow herbalists to make a good living. These business models work towards a healthy evolution of the herbal industry, and can produce very successful businesses as we enter a shift of consciousness towards supporting ethically-driven enterprises. The right internal framework, well that’s another blog post all-together…
1. Knowledge Industry and Gate-Keepers
The knowledge industry is a fantastic place to make a living. However, this industry more than any shows us just how polarized herbal medicine has become. On one hand are the numerous herbal colleges that offer great knowledge with reasonable tuition, but only confer credentials that are ambiguous to the average person. On the other hand are the degree-granting programs that offer a BSc or MSc in herbalism and a provide high caliber education, but have astronomical tuitions. Unless you are affluent, I honestly don’t know how you can pay back 80K in student loans while simultaneously finding the seed money to start an herbal business. One great example of a “hybrid” education is the Vermont Herb Center for Integrative Herbalism, which offers high caliber education with accessible tuition, and has also partnered up with Goddard College to provide BA and MA options. Hopefully this is the beginning of a new wave of affordable and degree granting herbal programs.
I like to think of magazines and journals as the gatekeepers of knowledge. They decide what information will reach the masses and how it will be presented. Again, these herbal journals seem to operate in a dichotomy – academic, science-based journals on one hand, and traditional, experiential-based journals on the other. And, again there seems to be an exception to the rule. Plant Healer: A Journal of Traditional Herbalism publishes articles from a wide range of authors – both scientific and traditional in origin – and seeks to bridge the divide between two polarized approaches to herbalism. Hopefully another sign of more great things to come.
2. Worker Owned Co-ops
Perhaps the most socially proactive example of alterative business structures is Third Root Community Health Center based in Brooklyn, New York. This vibrant health center offers a wide variety of health consultations ranging from acupuncture to herbalism, as well as multiple complementary therapies such as yoga and meditation. To fully appreciate this unique initiative, view this video that showcases this socially-driven twelve-member co-op. With a worker owned co-op, all decision-making, profits, voices, and resources are equally shared in a democratic process among all members of the co-op, and the importance of capital is subordinate to labour. Therefore this initiative can be seen as a labour-ist rather than a capital-ist structure.
3. Community Supported Herbalism (CSH)
This is a brilliant business model that functions like a regular CSA (community structured agriculture), but instead of supporting farmers, you’re supporting herbalists. The USDA’s definition of CSA is a “community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production.” I love this definition when applied to herbalism – the chosen herbalist becomes the community’s herbalist, and the community invests into the herbalist’s journey replete with highs and lows. I also love the idea of both producing medicinal herb baskets for the community as well as receiving a basket from my community herbalist that was specially crafted according to the sesaon. A win-win arrangement. Two notable examples of CSH ventures are Goldthread Herbal Apothecary (left) who run a CSH from an herb farm and apothecary in Massachusetts, and Burdock & Rose (right) who runs a creative and artistic CSH from her home in Michigan.
As the occupy movements encourage us to move away from empty consumerism and harmful profit structures, I challenge herbalists to occupy their minds and change their way of thinking about how to generate income. I challenge us all to step away from the oscillating structure of profit vs. poverty and create a new paradigm in which we are confident in our knowledge, resolved in our integrity, and steadfast in our ability to create a living as an herbalist. A paradigm where we work as one unified entity with a strong and clear voice. It’s time for herbalists to rise up and fully embrace the language we speak, the plants we use, and the path we take. Time for us to accept our true nature as scientists, thinkers, researchers and humanists. Time for us to adopt a new, more sustainable structure of business that allows us to be ethical and profitable. Time for us to embrace a revolutionary approach to herbalism.