Wild Plants and Natural Cosmetics – an Issue Under the Radar

Plants collected in the wild are a hidden component of many cosmetic products and can also be found in many organic products. However, wild plants are often not harvested according to sustainability criteria. The global procurement markets are partially lacking in transparency and supply chains are difficult to trace. Nevertheless, manufacturers and retailers can do a lot to ensure the sustainability of their products.

There are many advantages to cultivating crops. It may therefore come as a surprise that many products with wild plant ingredients are still sold on the world markets – and this number is actually increasing. However, the widespread use of wild collected plants is often not noticed by consumers, and retailers and manufacturers working with processed product ingredients are not always aware of it either.

In addition to pharmaceuticals, food and dietary supplements and teas, cosmetics is an important application area for plants collected in the wild. Many body care and make-up products contain, for example, shea butter, which is extracted from the fruit of the shea tree in the African Sahel region south of the Sahara. Another wild plant that is traded on a large scale for use in cosmetics is candelilla, a wax extracted from a wild variety of spurge in Mexico and used as a consistency enhancer in lipsticks, for example.

A trade of enormous volume

Wild plants, fungi and lichens are collected for commercial purposes all over the world. The trade with them, however, often remains unrecognized and has rarely been researched. Calculating exact and reliable figures on the global, national or regional market for wild plants is difficult because they are largely used locally and informally. Trade or production statistics for the products derived from certain plants often do not distinguish between plants from agricultural production and those from wild collection.

Estimates of the volume of trade are therefore approximations, usually calculated based on customs codes. Among the 300,000 to 400,000 plant species worldwide, there are about 30,000 whose medicinal or aromatic use is documented. According to estimates by the non-governmental organisation Traffic, 60 to 90 percent of all medicinal and aromatic plants (MAP) traded are collected in the wild.

According to estimates, the worldwide trade in MAP has tripled in the last 20 years. In Germany alone, the value of imported medicinal and aromatic plants is estimated at 250 million US dollars (2015). There are two main reasons why wild collection still makes economic sense today: On the one hand, some plants grow slowly or only at low plant density or are difficult to cultivate because of their ecological requirements, such as the Brazil nut or the argan tree. Sometimes, wild-growing plants also fetch higher market prices because they are perceived to be – or actually are – of higher quality. For example, the active ingredient glycyrrhizin in wild liquorice roots is three times more concentrated than in the cultivated plant.

Non-transparent supply chains

Wild collection will continue to play a role in future procurement – and is an important source of income for poor and disadvantaged population groups in rural areas around the world, among others. Manufacturers and retailers of products containing wild plant components are therefore required to ensure their sustainability from a social and species protection perspective. However, this often presents them with problems.

The collection and trade of wild plants is often opaque, and the traceability of supply chains is sometimes difficult. For example, the wild collection of Brazil nuts from the tree Bertholletia excelsa, which grows in the rainforests of South America, is usually not documented. However, framework programmes for sustainability are essential, as wild collection can help to preserve the habitat of plants, animals and people. Good practice strengthens the involvement of local communities and provides incentives to preserve habitats.

The main risk of wild collections is obvious: overuse. In extreme cases, unsustainable wild collections threaten the survival of an entire species. At the same time, only 7 percent of MAPs have so far been assessed according to the criteria of the IUCN Red List of the World Conservation Union, of which one in five is threatened with extinction. For the majority, the degree of endangerment is not known. In some cases, growing demand has led to traditional collection methods being replaced by more intensive and destructive practices, such as the use of heavy machinery to collect liquorice roots.

In search of standardised assessment methods

Importers, producers and traders of products containing wild plant components need standardized methods for assessing the sustainability of wild collection. And practical solutions already exist to help companies ensure that their supplies of wild plants come from legal and sustainable sources.

Several international framework agreements aim to promote the sustainability of wild collection worldwide. The most important instrument, albeit limited to certain species, is the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). It not only prohibits commercial trade in some species, but above all regulates trade in endangered animal and plant species listed in Appendix 2 of the Convention.

Trade in these plant species is legal, provided certain conditions are met. For an import or export permit to be granted, the government authorities must be satisfied that the collection does not endanger the survival of the species and must issue a clearance certificate. In Germany, the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation is the licensing authority for all imports and exports of species protected by CITES.

Compliance with the CITES provisions is an indicator of sustainability for wild collected plants. However: For plants that are not listed in CITES, there is often no or only weak control of the collection for trade purposes. In these cases, certification systems like the FairWild seal can be an effective means of influencing production methods and trade.