Dietary Supplements: Traceability


Your consumers demand an open relationship.

In case you haven’t noticed, there is a new kind of consumer out there. The natural shopper is no longer just a dyed-in-the-wool tree-hugger who blindly believes that if a product comes from a natural brand they know, it must be trustworthy. This new consumer is educated, informed, and engaged.  And like it or not, they know what you’re up to. The good, the bad, the ugly.

Importing ingredients of unknown foreign origin? Using fillers or extenders in your formulations? Thanks to the rise of social media and the astounding rate at which information is becoming available-not to mention the scrutiny of governing agencies and industry watchdogs-consumers will hear about it.

This leaves two options for those of us in the business of marketing and manufacturing these products: Swing the doors wide open for whoever wants to have a look inside, or have the doors knocked down for you.

Companies that have chosen the former are out there taking the lead, and it’s creating a shift in consumer expectations.

Since the beginning of time, consumers have given supplement claims the benefit of the doubt. Words like promotes, supports, and healthy have become ubiquitous shorthand that consumers understand to mean, “It couldn’t do any harm.” This mentality has carried us quite a long way. Even if consumers can’t feel tangible results of taking their daily dose of milk thistle, for example, they trust that at the very least, by “promoting a healthy liver function,” they’re doing their bodies good.

But the interrogation light hanging over industry’s head these days draws a different emotional reaction from even the most committed supplement users, and there’s no new shorthand that will reassure them. No longer is “promoting health” the crux of their concern. The suggestion that supplements may be tainted with heavy metals, toxins, pesticides, or bioengineered chemicals is creating concern among consumers that by taking supplements, they could be causing their bodies harm. This shift has led to a new discourse, one centered on fear. That fear is a powerful motivator, driving consumers’ demand to know exactly what is, and is not, in the products they’re purchasing.

There’s a benevolent button being pushed here as well. It’s an altruistic yet equally effective emotional motivator. The fair trade, organic, local, and environmental movements are converging to create a league of mission-motivated shoppers who demand to know not only what’s in a product, but also where it comes from, the impact of its production, and what its manufacturer is doing to make the world a better place.

These highly motivated consumers have unprecedented access to information and the unprecedented ability to reach out to their peers, share information, and rally around it. It’s no wonder companies that try to cover up their dirty laundry will soon be washed up.

Here’s the Good News

The new consumer doesn’t expect you to be perfect; they merely expect you to be honest. It’s perfectly okay to say, “We are not happy about the social impact of our sourcing practices. We recognize this as a major problem and are taking the following steps to rectify the situation.” Lay it out on the table for everyone to see. Be honest about your intentions, and you’ll earn your consumers’ trust.

Companies that have embraced this kind of transparency are not merely jumping on the bandwagon; they’re getting ahead of the curve. Transparency is a way to connect with the new consumer and dialogue with them on your terms.
Last year, Pure Branding partnered with Gaia Herbs to launch the industry’s first seed-to-shelf traceability program, Meet Your Herbs. As project leader on that team, I got to experience firsthand the impact transparency can have-on a company and its customers.

With transparency, the idea is that you’ve opened the kimono to let people see what kind of stuff is underneath. With traceability, there is no kimono. We move the “stuff” to the outside, take the dialogue and flip it ass-over-teakettle. Instead of consumers asking us to show them information, we’re showing it to them and asking them to look at it.

Every Gaia Herbs package now has a Meet Your Herbs ID number on it. For the fear-motivated consumers, it’s an on-pack insurance policy number. For the mission-motivated, Gaia is very publicly raising the bar of industry accountability. Where was the plant harvested? How it was grown, extracted, and validated for purity? Who was affected by its production, where are the gaps, and what is Gaia doing about them?
Meet Your Herbs was positioned as an online entry point to Gaia’s brand story. If a consumer traces a product with valerian root in it, for instance, they’ll find out that Gaia’s valerian comes from Gaia Farm, a 320-acre organic Eden. We wanted to push the farm experience out to consumers; Meet Your Herbs gave us the opportunity to do so. One more mouse click, and consumers see photos of the farm, get to know the farmers, and take a virtual tour of Gaia’s state-of-the-art on-site laboratories. Traceability not only invited consumers into the brand, it also gave retail staff something to talk about when recommending products.

Done right, opening up can foster a whole new conversation with all kinds of consumers. It can establish a new level of trust for your brand and position you as a leader, changemaker, philanthropist, do-gooder, world saver, health giver-you name it. The bottom line is that any level of transparency will amplify the authentic pieces of your brand story, and authenticity is exactly what people are looking for these days.

So let’s all get naked, right? Well, not so fast. Before you start stripping, consider this:

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 its 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’s easy to understand, meaningful, and user-friendly is time-intensive work.

For Gaia, which had the information largely available, it was a matter of organization and systemization. Even so, Greg Cumberford, Gaia’s vice president of strategic initiatives, says one of Gaia’s challenges was “corralling all the information-hundreds of product and label ingredients-in a short amount of time.” Cumberford recommends adopting a digital archiving and retrieval system for your paper records to help streamline the collection process.

Sink or Swim Together

Amid mounting market and regulatory pressures, the risk of not adopting a traceability platform increases dramatically. “It’s a matter of self-interest,” says Cumberford. “We believe other companies should follow suit with traceability efforts both to engender trust in our industry and to compel evermore 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 or her 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 they 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 Blue Avocado’s 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 corporate social responsibility 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 its Pure Check system 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 George.

Connect the Dots

Part of the process is determining how to make this information easily accessible. For Gaia, 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, Gaia’s vice president of marketing. “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 [Meet Your Herbs mobile] app was a big plus for us,” Buchman says. “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 to 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’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 also can have positive outcomes that far outweigh any initial discomfort. “It’s certainly helped us to raise consumer expectations in the herbal industry,” says Gaia’s Cumberford. “It’s the type of transparency the industry needs more of to rebuild consumer confidence in quality.”

It’s no easy task, and it won’t happen overnight. But consumers want it, and the industry stands to gain as much as any one company by itself. Eventually, demand for transparency will catch up with all of us, like it or not. So let’s throw open the doors. I hear someone knocking.


Traceability Programs Worth Watching

We can learn a lot from looking at traceability programs both inside and outside the supplement industry.

Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles

Gaia’s Meet Your Herbs

Frito Lay’s Chip Tracker


Ascenta’s Pure Check

Organic Valley’s Who’s Your Farmer

Askinosie’s Choc-O-Lot

Dole Organic’s Farm Selector

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