Natural Brands Get Naked and Trace Ourselves – Part 3: Trace Yourself

Do you have fear of commitment?

Amy George is Chief Ozone Officer of Blue Avocado, the sustainable grocery bag system that has pioneered a new, recycled plastic fabric, and traces metrics for “carbon avoided” and “plastic bags avoided” from a year’s use of each of their products.

“What do you want to do forever?” Amy asks, “because once you’re committed to transparency, you’re in it for the long haul.” Before you walk the walk, engage in some serious talking. Traceability should be a natural outgrowth of your corporate culture. If you don’t have the guts to support it, you probably shouldn’t do it. Traceability means transparency, which means accountability. Blue Avocado has committed to keeping a billion plastic bags from poisoning our planet this year alone. 

Where’s the beef?

Before you can engage in any level of transparency, you need to have the data to share. If you’re currently following cGMPs and keeping good records, you may already have much of what you need to get started. Spend the time at the front-end to research what your consumer really cares about. Understand that even if you already capture the information, distilling it into a format that easy to understand, meaningful and user-friendly is time-intensive work.

For Gaia Herbs, which had the information largely available, it was a matter of organization and systemization. Even so, Greg Cumberford says that one of their challenges was “corralling all the information—hundreds of product and labels ingredients—in a short amount of time.” Cumberford recommends adopting a digital archiving and retrieval record for your paper records to help streamline the collection process.

Sink or swim together.

Amid mounting market and regulatory pressures, the risk in not adopting a traceability platform increases dramatically. “It’s a matter of self-interest,” says Greg Cumberford, Gaia Herb’s vice president for strategic initiatives. “We believe other companies should follow suit with traceability efforts both to engender trust in our industry, and to compel ever more responsible and sustainable business practices.”

If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you?

Like a hot-springs retreat, it’s only awkward when that one person still has his clothes on. A commitment to traceability requires buy-in from everyone in your company, as well as your suppliers, vendors and other partners. When you examine your chain of custody, you may find yourself having difficult conversations with suppliers, often asking for information that vendors aren’t always willing to share.

“[Blue Avocado’s] vision is to inspire women to reduce their carbon footprint, and it was important that we communicate that at the product level,” explains Amy George. “To achieve that, we had to ask partners—including our factory and freight shippers—to undergo energy audits. We were fortunate that everyone complied, but that can be an additional challenge, especially for a small or start-up company.”

What’s the ace up your sleeve?

Data is boring. Sure, it’s a great way to prove your point — we’re cleaner, we’re stronger, we’re better — but who really cares about that? Use those difficult conversations with your suppliers to get to the stories behind the numbers, the stories that support your brand. Maybe your suppliers are the ones with the CSR story worth telling, maybe they know something about their product that you never considered. What you learn will at the very least be of value to you, and at best be of value to your consumers.

Size matters, but bigger might not be better.

The depth of the data you share must be calibrated to consumers’ demand for it. Too little and you won’t seem credible, too much and you’ll bury readers in complexity. Outside the supplement industry, we find plenty of benchmarks. You might just need to show folks the organic dairy farmer closest to their home (, who grew the cocoa beans in their chocolate bar (, or where the fabric for their coat was made (

While traceability is still a relatively new concept among supplement companies, Canada’s Ascenta Health, an industry leader in omega-3 fatty acids, proves with Pure Check that supplement users hunger for validation. Their service enables customers to enter a lot number on their website to access third-party quality test results ( Whatever you choose to share, “Make the statement visible, simple and meaningful to your customers,” advises Amy George.

Connect the dots.

Part of the process is determining how to make this information easily accessible. For Gaia Herbs, that meant we needed to redesign their packaging. “With Meet Your Herbs, there was so much we needed to show and tell customers,” explains Ann Buchman, Vice President of Marketing at Gaia Herbs. “Our new packaging became an asset—creating a buzz with both retailers and consumers.”

Once you know where you’re connecting with consumers, you need to think about where they’ll connect with you. Beyond the website, consider going mobile. “The app was a big plus for us. Our products are in many smaller natural retailers that don’t have a computer available. With the app, customers and sales reps enter the ID and learn all they need about that particular herb right at the point of sale.”

The truth hurts.

Like any new idea, when you bring this back to your team, it’ll inevitably be met with harsh resistance. And make no mistake about it, there are a bevy of barriers you’ll have to break. “Our suppliers won’t stand for it!” “That information is our competitive advantage!” “Everyone will hate us if they know the truth!” From proprietary formulas to strategic partnerships, the reasons not to don the birthday suit are nearly as endless as the reasons for it.  In the end, your solution probably won’t be everything you imagined it would be, but that’s okay, because…

Nobody’s perfect.

Recognize that traceability is a process. “We’re continually exploring the responses of consumers, retailers and practitioners to help us improve the system,” says Keri Marshall, Gaia Herb’s medical director. The biggest challenge is to keep perfection from becoming the enemy of greatness. As businesses grow, they naturally generate relationships that may be looser than they’d like. You may not be able to control every detail of every transaction, but that doesn’t mean you should hide from it. Above all, be honest.

Stripping down naked in front of your peers can seem like a crazy idea. But it can also have positive outcomes that far outweigh any initial discomfort. “It’s certainly helped us to raise consumer expectations in the herbal industry,” says Gaia Herb’s Greg Cumberford. “It’s the type of transparency the industry needs more of to rebuild consumer confidence in quality.”